Anticipating potential problems, the department stepped up its outreach efforts in the aftermath of Sandy, handing out business cards with phone numbers for workers to report problems, along with calendars so they could keep track of their hours.
While those efforts may have helped in some cases, many workers like Hernán still experienced their share of difficulties. Hernán (like Marcelo, he didn’t feel comfortable giving his last name) arrived in New Jersey from Guatemala shortly after the storm, looking for work. While he didn’t actually come as a result of Sandy, his timing was advantageous, as he found plenty of jobs repairing roofs, removing sheetrock, spackling, and doing miscellaneous construction. Even now -- a year later -- he still keeps pretty busy doing cleanup work up and down the coast. But all this has come at a cost.
“There were many poisons and chemicals. We didn’t know that things could be that dangerous until our bodies started to show the effects,” he said, echoing accounts from fellow workers who reported rashes, allergies, vomiting, respiratory problems, and a variety of on-the-job injuries.
“For example, it’s not good when we’re working where there’s been standing water mixed with sewage because it’s contaminated with bacteria,” he continued, speaking through a translator. “In the end, it’s the workers who suffer the most. I think that that wasn’t taken into consideration.”
Since the day labor workforce is transient and operates largely out of the public eye, getting a handle on the scale of the problem can be difficult.
But by one account, over 90 percent of the 11 day-labor worker centers in New York and New Jersey that responded to the CUNY survey said that they had seen or heard of workers being exposed to hazardous materials in the aftermath of Sandy. That included industrial cleanups involving warehouses that stored pharmaceuticals and in hospitals or health facilities where the report noted there was a high probability that hazardous materials were released.
More than half reported Sandy-related workplace accidents, and a quarter said workers were provided inadequate equipment to safely perform their jobs. Meanwhile, a spokeswoman from the U.S. Department of Labor said the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has so far conducted 140 Sandy-related inspections in New Jersey and found 110 violations, levying penalties totaling more than $570,000 -- though it’s unclear how many of those violations involved day laborers. (OSHA both conducts it own investigations and responds to complaints.)
But critics claim OSHA is understaffed and ill-equipped to provide effective regulatory oversight in the aftermath of disasters of the magnitude of Sandy.
As for cases of wage theft, more than 80 percent of respondents told the authors of the CUNY report that they had heard of instances of workers not being paid or being underpaid for Sandy-related cleanup and repair work. The New Jersey Department of Labor says it has 16 open cases. In addition, nine have been closed with fines issued, two have been settled and are awaiting payment, and six more are awaiting conferences because the employers have disputed the assessments.
The US Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division has oversight for larger contractors who gross over $500,000 annually or with construction projects that are federally financed or involving interstate commerce, like repairs to factories and banks. They’ve initiated over 50 Sandy-related payment investigations statewide, so far. Again, it’s unclear how many of these might have involved day laborers.