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Sandy Poses Special Problems for Immigrant Day Laborers Aiding Recovery Effort

Often working under unsafe conditions with little or no training or equipment, unauthorized workers are particularly vulnerable to post-Sandy hazards

Labor organizer Jonas Mendonza leads a class to teach workers about their rights
Labor organizer Jonas Mendonza leads a class to teach workers about their rights.

“After Sandy, I went to work with a contractor doing a basement cleanup,” recalled Marcelo, a day laborer from Brazil who’s been living in the U.S. for the past seven years but didn’t want to give his last name because he’s not authorized to work here. “We were taking down a sheetrock framing, and I got hit by a hammer on my head.”

He bled a little, but remembers thinking at the time that his injuries weren’t that bad, so he cleaned himself up and kept working. “That day I didn’t have gloves, I didn’t have goggles, I didn’t have a helmet. No safety equipment,” he said.

The next morning, he started to have headaches, which continued for several days. “I said to myself, you know, I’d better go to the doctor, because maybe something’s damaged inside,” he recalled. So he went to the hospital, had some x-rays taken, and eventually the headaches went away.

One week later, a bill arrived in the mail. It was close to a thousand dollars, and Marcelo didn’t have insurance. So he contacted his boss from the job site where he had sustained his injury. “He said, ‘That’s impossible. I don’t know you. You don’t have legal documents to work for me. I can’t help with that. You’re on your own right now,’” Marcelo remembered. So he ended up scraping up the money to pay the bill himself.

After any major disaster, day laborers are often among the first to report to the frontlines of the cleanup and recovery effort, drawn by the increased demand for work and the promise of picking up extra hours.

But as noted in a new report from the City University of New York’s Baruch College School of Public Affairs, disasters, by their very nature, tend to create additional occupational hazards and safety issues for both workers and employers, for which there is often little training.

Sandy is no exception. As part of the recovery effort, workers may be exposed to mold and other toxic substances they might not ordinarily come across. And they may be given unfamiliar tasks, sometimes without fully understanding the dangers and the risks.

Immigration Project

Immigrant rights groups say the experience of Sandy emphasizes the need for day laborers and their organizations to be systematically incorporated into future disaster planning and recovery efforts, so that worker health and safety take greater priority.

In addition to potentially unsafe working conditions, many day laborers working on the Sandy recovery have also faced problems with being underpaid or -- in some instances -- not paid at all for work they’ve done.

To be clear, many of these problems have always existed for this segment of the labor force, where many workers don’t speak English. They may be unaware of their rights and are often afraid to seek help or report violations out of fear they may be blacklisted from future work assignments or deported.

As the federal agency tasked with protecting workers’ rights and wellbeing, the U.S. Department of Labor is aware of the challenges presented by disaster recovery scenarios.

“What it is is a chaotic environment into which you’re putting a big, ad hoc workforce,” explained Patrick Reilly, Director of the Department’s Wage and Hour Division for Southern New Jersey. “You have damaged or absent infrastructure, and you are bringing in a lot of workers very often from outside the area. And they’re trying to get work done quickly and trying to get people’s lights back on and the water running again and all the utilities going, the streets open and so forth. And there’s an immediacy to it that may lead employers to say, ‘Well, I’m not going to worry about the labor standards. I need to get this done.’”

Read more in More Issues, Sandy
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