Hurricane Harvey

Harvey Means More Jobs. But Does It Mean More Exploitation Too?

“They specifically go where the Hispanics are, because they know we are looking for work….There is some fear [to report], because we are not protected,” said Jose David Lizardo, an undocumented worker in Houston.

Officials estimate Hurricane Harvey has damaged more than 126,000 homes in the Houston region. Putting things back together is a monumental job, requiring thousands of workers. But it may also be raising a risk for the most vulnerable of workers: day laborers.

Like many large cities, Houston has dozens of corners where day laborers gather to find work. Many of them are undocumented, like Jose David Lizardo. He said he comes to this corner on most days, to find work.

“After the catastrophe there was a lot of work,” Lizardo said, in Spanish. “But previously, there was very little [work].”

And while jobs are in abundance, Lizardo said it’s difficult when an employer refuses to pay him, or puts him in danger.  

“Most of the time, they come only for the labor. They do not take safety into account, [or] the protection for the workers,” Lizardo said. “These days we see a lot of racism. They see us and they know we are Hispanic. They specifically go where the Hispanics are, because they know we are looking for work….There is some fear [to report abuse], because we are not protected.”

Lizardo said he feels like workers in the undocumented community are not protected, especially with the emergence of Texas’ so-called “anti-sanctuary cities” law, Senate Bill 4.  

And Marianela Acuña Arreaza, Executive Director of the Fe y Justicia Worker Center, said recovery storm work augments already existing problems.

“After a storm, there is definitely the urgency to get a lot of work done…. But at the same time, protecting people’s ability to take breaks when they need them. Especially when they’re still dealing with other safety risks. For example, like heat and lack of ventilation and things like that,” said Acuña. “That always exist in Houston, even before storm, but is so much worse after.”

In Texas, private employers have the choice whether to provide workers’ compensation, if an injury happens on the job. That’s different than most states. And Houston Lawyer Tom Padgett said natural disasters bring up a flurry of potential hazards.

“There’s going to be a big danger of exposure to chemicals, mold, disease, bacteria. That floodwater was a toxic mix—just a toxic environment,” said Padgett. “And working in those environments, you have to have the proper safety equipment.”

Under federal law, all workers are entitled to safe working conditions. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) said it has 23 staff members operating in the Houston area, to identify hazards and keep safety a priority during clean up. 

But Padgett said it’s inherently difficult for OSHA regulations to be enforced – especially after Harvey.

“I think it would be virtually impossible,” said Padgett. “If we even had enough OSHA regulators to go around and monitor, and check and make sure employers are doing it properly, they wouldn’t be able to be everywhere they needed to be.”

Padgett said the economic stress that comes with post-hurricane work is also a perfect storm for wage theft.

Acuña said wage theft is already a huge issue in Texas, and she has already received complaints from workers who say they are victims of wage theft from Harvey-related work.

Acuña provided News 88.7 with this cell phone video. She said it’s from a worker who claims to have been a victim of wage theft, after working on a flooded apartment complex on the west side of Houston.

But there’s also another wrinkle to post-Harvey recovery work, if you look at today’s political climate.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, just under a quarter of construction workers in Texas are undocumented. That’s over 200,000 workers who are especially vulnerable, when faced with employment issues.

And undocumented worker Jose David Lizardo said it has been a problem. In addition to general wage theft and safety issues, Lizardo told News 88.7 people have routinely shouted slurs at Hispanic workers, who wait on Houston corners for day jobs. He even said one of his past employers, in Louisiana, made workers wear “Make America Great Again” hats.

Lizardo said he sends money over to his family of seven, back in Honduras. And while he would like to fight for money he claims he’s owed, according to Lizardo, there’s not enough time to deal with it. He has to keep going.

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