U.S. Labor Department Ignored Rampant Worker Abuses in Post-Katrina New Orleans
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.
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."
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.