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Labor Abuses After Harvey


Putting Houston back together after Hurricane Harvey is a monumental job requiring thousands of workers. But it may also be raising a risk to some of the most vulnerable who end up doing the dirtiest jobs - day laborers. Houston Public Media's Allison Lee has this story.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).

ALLISON LEE, BYLINE: I'm at one of the dozens of corners throughout Houston near a home improvement center where day laborers gather to find work. Many of them are undocumented, like Jose David Lisardo. He says he comes to this corner on most days.

JOSE DAVID LISARDO: (Through Interpreter) After the catastrophe, there was a lot of work. But, previously, there was very little.

LEE: And while jobs are in abundance, Lisardo says it's difficult to do anything if an employer refuses to pay him or puts him in danger.

LISARDO: (Through interpreter) Most of the time, they come only for the labor. They don't take safety into account or the protection for the workers. They see us, and they know we're Hispanic. We are afraid to report because we're not protected.

LEE: A new study from the University of Illinois at Chicago surveyed 361 day laborers doing post-Harvey recovery work in Houston. Of those who suffered injuries, half said they were hurt because of pressure to work faster.

MARIANELA ACUNA ARREAZA: Some of the dangers that workers face are kind of always there, but they're just a lot worse after a storm.

LEE: That's Marianela Acuna Arreaza. She's the executive director of the Fe Y Justicia Worker Center in Houston. Acuna says recovery storm work exposes already existing problems.

ARREAZA: After a storm, there is definitely the urgency of getting, like, a lot of work done. But at the same time, like, really protecting people's ability to take breaks when they need them, especially when they're still dealing with other safety, like, risks, like, for example, like heat and like lack of ventilation.

LEE: Under federal law, all workers are entitled to safe working conditions. OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, says after Harvey hit, it dispatched 23 staff members to the Houston area to identify hazards and try to keep safety a priority during cleanup. But Houston lawyer Tom Padgett says it's inherently difficult for OSHA regulations to be enforced, especially after Harvey.

TOM PADGETT: I think it would be virtually impossible. If we even had enough OSHA regulators to go around and monitor and check and make sure that employers are doing it properly, they wouldn't be able to get everywhere they need to be.

LEE: Padgett says the economic stress that comes with post-hurricane work is also a perfect storm for wage theft. Wherever there's a disaster, economic activity surges during the repair and recovery period.

PADGETT: During that time, there's a lot of exploitation of workers. You know, employers come up with all types of different ways of not paying undocumented workers correctly. And the reason why is, obviously, the fear.

LEE: Fear of being deported. According to the Migration Policy Institute, just under a quarter of the undocumented population in Texas works in construction. That's over 200,000 workers who are extra vulnerable when faced with employment issues.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).

LEE: Back on a street corner in southeast Houston, Jose David Lisardo is still waiting for jobs with other day laborers. He tells me he sends money back to his family of seven in Honduras. And while he would like to fight for the money he's owed, he says he just doesn't have time to deal with it and has to keep going. For NPR News, I'm Allison Lee in Houston.

(SOUNDBITE OF LRKR'S "EVOLVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.