Vital undocumented workers victims of wage theft, shifting laws

Jacinta Gonzalez, an organizer with the Congress of Day Laborers in New Orleans, tells a story about the abuse of workers rebuilding the city after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. She once met a man who went to his employer’s house to demand payment for his labor on a construction site after the employer stiffed him of his dues. The man’s boss came at him, swinging a hammer. The worker immediately called the police.

When they showed up, she says, the first thing they did was ask for his immigration status. “These are the sort of situations that prevent day laborers from asking for help when their wages are denied,” Gonzalez says.

The politics of immigration are thorny, but it is a simple truth that construction companies routinely use day laborers without checking their immigration status: Thousands of those workers have helped and are helping to rebuild New Orleans. But those workers commonly suffer abuse due to their immigration status, including threats of violence and wage theft. Despite the best efforts of workers’ rights groups, five years after the hurricane, advocates say abuse remains rampant. Now, those groups are calling for specific legislation to protect vulnerable workers — documented and not — and to make sure they get their due.

After Hurricane Katrina, the number of undocumented workers in New Orleans increased substantially, in part because of a Department of Homeland Security directive to suspend employment immigration enforcement in the area immediately following the storm. The suspension expired quickly, but it created an inviting environment for undocumented immigrants, says Elizabeth Fussell, a professor at Washington State University.

“Conditions were set to attract a labor force of Latino immigrants,” Fussell says. “There was a large population of undocumented immigrants who were coming to do the work that was necessary in the city.”

Though there are no firm numbers on undocumented workers, social scientists point to increases in the Latino population to show the influx of immigrants. The Latino population increased from a 4.4 percent share of the population in 2000 to 6.6 percent last year, according to Census data. Advocacy groups say it is likely higher, about 10 percent.

Thousands of those workers came to work rebuilding New Orleans — clearing debris, fixing roads, building houses, constructing schools. “After Katrina hit, there was much more work and much more wages for people — there were other wages to be found,” Gonzalez says.

And along with the rise of undocumented workers and construction problems came wage theft — to which undocumented immigrants are particularly vulnerable. In a 2007 survey of Mexican migrants at the Mexican mobile consulate in a suburb of New Orleans, Fussell found that 24 percent had experienced situations where an employer did not pay, while about 16 percent had been paid less than they were promised. Nearly 90 percent of those surveyed were working in the country illegally. The Congress of Day Laborers last year found that 80 percent of the workers it represents had been victims of wage theft in the past year.

The consequences are particularly dire for undocumented workers, who do not have access to the same legal and policing resources as other workers. “When you’re not paid for that money, the consequences can be much more serious. It’s the difference between being able to pay rent and being homeless,” says Gonzales.

Nonprofit and advocacy groups stepped in to fill the void, helping undocumented workers regain wages from bosses who stiffed them. The Pro Bono Project and Loyola New Orleans’ School of Law help workers sue their employers, for instance. At the Pro Bono clinic, established in 2007, lawyer Vanessa Spinazola says 90 percent of the workers represented are undocumented. Last year, in a nine-month period, lawyers at the clinic saw 476 workers, filed 365 cases and helped draft 146 demand letters.

Oxfam America funds the Pro Bono clinic, but was forced to discontinue its project on workers’ rights in July due to a lack of funds. Ilana Scherl, a field representative for Oxfam who previously worked on the worker’s rights project, says New Orleans just had too much need and too little funding for the initiative. “I guess a lot of foundations feel like five years later everything should be taken care of,” she says. “The problems are still there but the funds are not.” Spinazola says the clinic has enough funding from Oxfam to operate until July 2011, and she is “writing grants as fast as possible” to find money to continue the clinics.

The clinic is still very much needed, particularly because workers often face violence from employers for demanding their wages, she says. The clinic tells workers to put the address of a clinic P.O. box on their demand letters, so that if employers want to retaliate they won’t have their home addresses. Workers whose employers know their addresses often move before sending the letter. Fear deters some workers from seeking their wages, but others move forward with claims, Spinazola says. “They’re afraid but they need the money or they think they deserve their money — which they do.”

Of course, for illegal immigrants there is also a fear that their employers will call ICE. Spinazola said she suspects that happened a few years ago, when the clinic helped a group of about 40 men who were living and working in an apartment complex to send a letter demanding wages. Most of the men moved out before the letter was sent, but seven were still present when the employer received the demand letter. Two days later, Spinazola said ICE raided the apartments. Three of the men were deported.

Worker’s rights advocates argue that a city ordinance is essential to combating a wage theft problem too big for advocates and undocumented workers to deal with on their own. “The workers need protection, they’re not getting it right now,” Scherl says. “The only way we see to achieve that is to have a policy in place protecting the workers.”

The New Orleans Center for Racial Justice helped develop a policy, but the exact direction of the potential ordinance remains unclear. New Orleans City Councilman Arnie Fielkow has said he would support a wage theft ordinance, and groups are now negotiating the ordinance with the mayor’s office and other officials at city hall.

In New Orleans, some advocates of a wage theft ordinance said they are concerned growing anti-illegal immigrant sentiment will play into their effort to pass the ordinance. But they are hoping the general goodwill many New Orleans residents feel toward the workers who helped rebuild their city will make matters easier.

“In this climate, the fear of opposition is always there,” Gonzalez says. “But New Orleans is a city that recognizes that day laborers did participate and did come to the rescue in terms of reconstruction.”

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