Houston’s Day Laborers Face Stolen Wages, Unsafe Conditions When Disaster Strikes

In the wake of the winter freeze, day laborers and other immigrant workers are already reporting incidents of wage theft as they help Houstonians recover. Many of the storm’s second responders doing critical repairs are in positions that are easy to exploit. 

In this Oct. 5, 2017 photo, Guillermo Miranda Vazquez, right, speaks to Francisco Pacheco, left, an organizer surveying day laborers about their work conditions in Houston. Vazquez starts his day in a parking lot near the Home Depot where he easily finds work alongside other day laborers who are cleaning up Houston after Hurricane Harvey.

Houston’s day laborers are going unpaid and facing dangerous conditions as they help the city recover from last month’s winter storm.

That’s according to reports received by the Fe y Justicia Worker Center, a local group that advocates for day laborers in Houston. And the group is expecting to see more claims in the coming weeks.

It’s part of a pattern of worker exploitation and unsafe conditions that Houston’s second responders face year-round, according to the group’s legal manager Jessica Diaz.

Over the past year, the Fe y Justicia Worker Center has received 380 worker safety and health complaints and reports of more than $312,000 in unpaid wages from around 200 workers, Diaz said.

In an interview with Houston Public Media, Diaz said she sees a spike in complaints disaster after disaster: people need day laborers, and cash-strapped workers put themselves into vulnerable positions to secure a job.

The below interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How have these workers been impacted by the winter storm?

We saw a lot of our members that were financially impacted. They live paycheck to paycheck. It was the entire week (without work). In some cases, where there were burst pipes or even the high electricity bills, that threw most of our clients off. Some could afford the repairs that were needed immediately, but it also set them back in being able to pay their bills. Now with these energy bills coming in super high, we’re seeing that a lot of our clients are on the verge of getting their lights cut off or their water cut off because they cannot afford that amount.

Have you seen workplace violations from the winter storm?

We’re already bracing ourselves for the influx. Houston again is in reconstruction mode, so we are starting to see violations of wage theft from employees that have done construction repairing work within homes. It usually happens every time there is a natural disaster, we are aware that we are going to receive a ton of wage theft violations. There’s also going to be domestic violence. We have gotten two domestic violence calls because of this lock-in that we were in for a week.

Workers are encouraged to keep a diary with their employment information and a registry of hours worked.

Why are day laborers and other informal workers more at risk of exploitation?

There’s so much need for work. Most of them are the head of their household. Whenever a person comes and drives by Home Depot and says “I need someone to fix something in my house,” it's a no-question kind of scenario. You just get in the car. Whoever gets in the car the fastest is the one who is going to get the job. You don't even ask how much they're going to pay you. You don't even ask about the employer, who they are or where they're taking you. You don’t ask how long the job is going to get done. You see them pulling away from asking those questions because that’s going to make the employer not want to hire them. For the sake of being able to get your day’s worth, there’s no questions asked you just hop in the car and you go.

What concerns do you have about Gov. Greg Abbott ending the mask mandate and reopening Texas?

Most of our members have been concerned about this. What we have seen is particularly concern about their children, about the elderly. Most of our community lives three generations in a household: the grandparents, the parents and the children.

This is the community that is desperate to get back to work, that is desperate for that paycheck, so obviously they are going to be the ones that are going to be more impacted. This community is most likely not covered by insurance, they don’t have the means to financially handle this kind of sickness. You can’t go to work — they usually don’t have sick days.

What other health and safety issues have you seen come up during the pandemic?

Because most of our clientele has no (immigration) status we see that the employer doesn't feel the need to establish safety and health rules within the workplace. We have been seeing a lot of cases where they have been firing most of the employees who were coming back being COVID positive instead of giving them the appropriate timespan to be able to recover and return back to work with a negative COVID test. At the beginning, we saw a lot of employees having to pay for their own COVID testing. The employer would not let them come back to work unless they had a negative COVID test, but they were never given the resources or even the information as to where to obtain a COVID test.

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