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Sandy Poses Special Problems for Immigrant Day Laborers Aiding Recovery Effort

“We’ve been trying to do as much as we can to minimize the wage problems that could crop up,” said the Department of Labor’s Patrick Reilly, explaining that the federal government has the power to de-bar companies and prevent them from bidding on contracts in the most extreme cases.

“We’ve gone to the workers, we’ve gone to the community organizations, we’ve gone to the employers, we’ve gone to the contractors, we’ve gone to the contracting agencies, telling everybody, ‘These are the rules, and shame on you if you don’t play by them.’” NJ Spotlight contacted the New Jersey Builders Association for a response, but the organization referred inquiries to the National Association of Homebuilders. The NAHB, in turn, said it doesn’t have a code of ethics and doesn’t regulate the actions of its members and was thus unable to issue a statement.

Resolving payment problems can be an incredibly difficult and slow process, said Carlos Canales, who works as an organizer at Casa Freehold, a day-labor worker center. He initiated about 10 cases on behalf of workers back in the spring with the New Jersey Department of Labor but said those cases have yet to be settled.

And even if the workers are eventually victorious, employers often settle for amounts much less than what the workers say they’re owed. In some cases, Canales has also bypassed the state and federal Departments of Labor and helped workers file cases in small claims court for back wages, but it can be hard to enforce small claims verdicts.

“Really the system has been [set up] to fail. I don’t see other purposes,” he said. “Just to give the illusion to the worker that they have some mechanism to file against the employer, but that’s not true. There’s nothing there.”

Still, despite what at times seems like an uphill battle, groups like Casa Freehold and New Labor continue to advocate on behalf of immigrant workers, supplying them with protective equipment like gloves and masks, giving them occupational safety and wage theft prevention training and teaching them their rights as they continue repair work up and down the Jersey Shore.

On a recent weekday morning, a small group of day laborers gathered as they always do on a sidewalk in Red Bank, waiting for contractors to drive by and hire them for the day. But this morning would be a bit different from the rest. About quarter after eight, several representatives of New Labor showed up, erected an easel in the corner of a church parking lot and began an impromptu teach-in for all those assembled.

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