Like so many others, they got screwed.
A hearing Tuesday before the subcommittee on domestic policy of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform shed light on what critics called the department's failed or non-existent reactions to complaints about immigrant worker labor injustices.
One critic, Saket Soni, co-founder and lead organizer for the New Orleans Workers Center for Justice, said the Labor Department had failed to investigate or follow up on several complaints filed by his organization.
While the hearings this week brought the abuse to the attention of some, its not like it hasn't been pointed out before.
Interfaith Worker Justice had earlier released a report titled "Working on Faith: A Faithful Response to Worker Abuse in New Orleans." Based on interviews with 218 workers -- domestic and migrant -- in New Orleans last summer, the report reveals that:
* 47 percent reported not receiving all the pay they were entitled to while working in the region since Katrina;
* 55 percent said they received no overtime pay for hours worked beyond 40 per week;
* 58 percent said they were exposed at work to dangerous substances including mold, contaminated water and asbestos; and
* workers were unaware that the U.S. Department of Labor was an agency charged with protecting their rights.
In an article last September, Truthout, reported on a suit filed by the National Immigration Law Center on behalf of 82 guest workers from Bolivia, Peru and the Dominican Republic against Decatur Hotels, a downtown New Orleans chain. The suit alleged that the workers were recruited, went into debt to get here, then weren't given the work hours they were promised. By law, they aware not allowed to work elsewhere.
"It's a system of slavery," Luis Lopez, 34, who left a job in an architecture office in the Dominican Republic to come work for Decatur says in the article. "You belong to the person who contracted you."
In October, 2005, The Boston Globe reported on mistreatment of workers being brought into the gulf states in the aftermath of Katrina:
''There's not any housing, even for the people who are from there," said Tirso Moreno, director of the Farmworker Association of Florida, who toured coastal Mississippi to assess working conditions. ''Some labor contractors will bring our people up for two or three weeks of work and then leave them there. Sometimes they are paid too little and sometimes not at all. There's nothing they can do to fight it."
Two years later, Congress is still talking about it.
The following is taken from the Southern Poverty Law Center.
U.S. Labor Department Ignored Rampant Worker Abuses in Post-Katrina New Orleans
June 26, 2007 – Migrant workers who flocked to New Orleans to rebuild the city after Hurricane Katrina were routinely cheated out of wages and faced other abuses while the U.S. Department of Labor made little effort to police the contractors employing them, a Southern Poverty Law Center attorney told a House subcommittee today.
The SPLC, which has spoken with more than 1,000 Gulf Coast workers as part of its outreach, advocacy and litigation, found that the majority did not receive overtime pay, despite the fact that many worked 80 to 100 hours per week. Many said they were sometimes not paid at all.
Workers who complained about wage theft and other abuses faced termination, threats of deportation and even physical assault, SPLC attorney Jennifer J. Rosenbaum told the House Subcommittee on Domestic Policy.
"The Department of Labor's response was shockingly inadequate given the extreme exploitation of migrant workers that occurred during the reconstruction of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast," Rosenbaum said. "Many migrant workers remain unpaid or underpaid for their work cleaning up the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina."
Rosenbaum said the DOL:
failed to adequately staff its New Orleans office, despite billions in federal dollars awarded to contractors;
failed to make staffers available to speak with workers during nights and weekends;
failed to communicate with workers in their native language;
dismissed many complaints after little more than a cursory telephone interview, and frequently did not even record them;
focused on easy cases involving small groups of workers rather than investigating systemic problems involving large contractors and multiple layers of subcontractors;
failed to protect workers from employer retaliation for wage complaints;
failed to obtain adequate settlements on behalf of workers; and,
failed to ensure that damage awards reached workers.
"In most cases, workers were directly employed by subcontractors, sometimes several layers away from the general contractor, and often were uninformed about how to complain to the general contractor when their wages went unpaid or underpaid," Rosenbaum told the subcommittee in written testimony. "These major contractors thus lined their pockets with lucrative contracts while hiding behind a subcontracting system, the workers' fear of retaliation and the general chaos of the city."
The SPLC has filed three major lawsuits to help hundreds of foreign and domestic workers recover unpaid wages. Two of those cases, against major cleanup and reconstruction contractors, have resulted in settlements totaling about $900,000 that will be distributed to workers.
A recent report by Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ), titled "Working on Faith: A Faithful Response to Worker Abuse in New Orleans," found that workers did not know about the DOL and did not view it as responsible for investigating unpaid minimum wage and overtime. "When we surveyed 218 immigrant and U.S.-born workers, not one knew that they could go to the U.S. Department of Labor for help," said Ted Smukler, director of public policy for IWJ.
The IWJ report revealed that the New Orleans DOL wage-and-hour division gained only two part-time investigators, who were rotated from other offices. The New Orleans DOL office initiated only 57 wage-and-hour investigations in the year following Hurricane Katrina – a 37 percent decrease from the year preceding the hurricane.
"The federal government utterly failed these workers by not enforcing our nation's wage laws," said Catherine K. Ruckelshaus, litigation director for the National Employment Law Project. "But the problems of New Orleans are only a microcosm of the Labor Department’s inability to protect the wage floor. We commend Rep. [Dennis] Kucinich and his committee for this investigation."