02/02/2006

SPLC Seeks Justice for Katrina's Migrant Workers

Lawyers challenge government's inadequate response to rampant abuse

Two cases filed in federal court yesterday charge that thousands of immigrant laborers involved in the reconstruction of New Orleans have been cheated out of their wages by major U.S. companies.

The lawyers who filed the class actions are scheduled to meet today in Washington, D.C., with U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) officials and other advocates to complain about the agency's failure to fulfill its obligation to protect workers involved in the reconstruction process.

"Lawsuits alone won't stop the widespread exploitation of workers that's going on in New Orleans," said J.J. Rosenbaum, an attorney with the Center's Immigrant Justice Project (IJP), which filed the lawsuits. "The people working in New Orleans to rebuild its schools, hospitals and university buildings need and deserve the protection of the federal government."

IJP attorneys, who have interviewed hundreds of immigrant workers in the New Orleans area since October, report that the overwhelming majority have been cheated on hours, overtime or both.

Although a DOL press release issued on December 1 announced that five Spanish-speaking investigators had been dispatched to the Gulf region, none of the workers interviewed by the IJP report ever having met with or heard of the investigators in New Orleans. According to IJP's lawyers, the DOL's efforts in New Orleans are completely ineffective.

The first case, Rodrigues v. Belfor USA Group Inc., was brought on behalf of potentially thousands of workers who were employed by Belfor USA Group, Inc., a major natural disaster reconstruction firm, and its subcontractors. Restoring key public services to the city, including Tulane Hospital and Tulane University, these workers often worked seven days a week, 12 hours a day to remove mold, mud, and other toxic contamination from the flooded buildings.

The lawsuit alleges that Belfor has unlawfully used a subcontractor system to avoid paying any overtime wages to workers on its massive reconstruction projects. Federal law says that employers like Belfor are jointly responsible for ensuring that their workers earn basic minimum wage and overtime.

The second case, Navarrete-Cruz v. LVI Environmental Services of New Orleans, Inc., et al. involves another large contractor, LVI Environmental Services of New Orleans, Inc. LVI also used a subcontractor system to avoid paying workers the wages owed to them. One of the large subcontractors used by LVI, defendant D&L, Environmental, Inc., failed to pay many of its migrant workers anything for much of their labor. The plaintiffs were employed cleaning public elementary and high schools.

"When we weren't paid, we didn't even have money for food," says plaintiff Sergio de Leon, who worked during October cleaning toxic mud and mold from St. Bernard Parish schools. "These companies are robbing us of our money after we worked so hard."

The lawsuits highlight the appalling exploitation of immigrant workers in the Gulf reconstruction. Many of the plaintiffs, and other workers like them, worked on public reconstruction projects and yet were dramatically underpaid or not paid at all. Huge companies, many with direct FEMA or other government contracts, hide behind the subcontracting system in order to cheat workers and make as much profit as possible.

"While these contracts are worth millions to companies like LVI and Belfor," says Rosenbaum, "unpaid workers can't even afford food and shelter."

The lawsuits are intended to send a strong message to companies doing post-Katrina reconstruction that federal and state employment laws must be followed and that hiring immigrant workers through subcontractors does not give companies a free pass to exploit those workers.

"We've heard that employers are telling the workers that there is no law in New Orleans that they must follow," says Rosenbaum. "With the Center's help, workers in New Orleans are demanding that the city be built with equal justice for all who work and live there."