Sandy to Harvey: will lessons from day laborers be learned or forgotten?

Massive “clean-up” projects are underway in Houston and the surrounding region. As the waters brought by Hurricane Harvey recede, individuals seeking work—day laborers—will be assembling in damaged neighborhoods and offering their skills. It was a commonplace scene following Superstorm Sandy’s destruction in 2012, and in Harvey’s disaster zone, day laborers are already on street corners and in parking lots offering to work.

I hope the workers’ experiences from Superstorm Sandy are lessons being reviewed by officials, leaders, and funders in Houston. It would be time well spent if they read “Day Labor, Worker Centers & Disaster Relief Work in the Aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.” It was written by faculty at the City University of New York and published one year after the catastrophic storm. They authors write:

“within the first week after Sandy…day laborers were in high demand and among the first core of workers to respond to the disaster relief, cleanup up and reconstruction efforts.”

The area around Houston has a robust population of day laborers. There are thousands of individuals who seek work daily or sporadically at well-known gathering spots. The Latino Day Laborer (LDL) Health Initiative in Houston identified more than 70 locations in the city where workers gather for jobs. The LDL Initiative, which began in 2013, is a collaborative research project coordinated by the University of Texas Health Sciences Center and the Fe y Justicia Worker Center.

Jose Lenin of Fe y Justicia conducts a safety training session in 2016 with three day laborers.

The project’s major activity involved recruiting and interviewing 350 day laborers about safety hazards, injuries sustained, and strategies to protect themselves. Some of the workers were later involved in testing the effectiveness of different work-related injury prevention interventions.

Although they work in an informal sector of the economy, day laborers still have the same right to a safe workplace as those employed more traditionally. Day laborers need to be provided proper equipment, safety gear, and training. If they speak up about safety concerns to an owner or manager, it’s illegal to retaliate against them. But often that’s not how it plays out and not what happened for many day laborers following Superstorm Sandy.

As the recovery kicks into high gear in the Houston area, individuals making decisions about how and where to invest disaster-response funding would be wise to coordinate with the LDL Health Initiative’s leadership. Day laborers will—and already are—removing debris, using chainsaws, pulling out drywall and carpeting, and repairing roofs. They can be easy prey for unscrupulous employers and homeowners who will jip them of their pay and create obstacles for to do their jobs safely.

To protect against abuse to Houston’s workers, the following are recommendations from “Day Labor, Worker Centers & Disaster Relief Work in the Aftermath of Hurricane Sandy”:

  • Recognize the important role played by day laborers in relief and reconstruction;
  • Distribute and make widely available gloves, googles, safety boots, and other personal protective equipment;
  • Allocate funding to worker centers which are the established community link to day laborers;
  • Enforce worker safety and wage theft laws; and
  • Protect clean-up and reconstruction workers from threats of deportation.

Day laborers who rebuilt neighborhoods following Superstorm Sandy lent their expertise to make these recommendations. Will the lessons they provided be learned in Houston or forgotten?  Now’s the time to embrace the former.

P.S. Fe y Justicia Worker Center, the premier worker center in Houston, is partnering with multiple local, state, and national organizations to plan the city’s recovery efforts ensuring that: workers have safety and health training and equipment given the unique conditions of hurricane aftermath; workers are treated fairly for their labor; and that workers are able to rebuild their own lives as well –– and not just the lives of others. But none of this guaranteed, and they need funds to ensure this happens. I encourage you to make a donation (any amount will help.) I guarantee the funds will be used wisely.

Here’s the URL to make a donation: https://www.youcaring.com/feyjusticiaworkercenter-921530