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SPLC Settlement Recovers Wages for Hurricane Katrina Cleanup Workers

Migrant workers who alleged they were forced to work for months without pay and endure squalid living conditions as they repaired apartments in the New Orleans area will finally be paid for their work under a settlement the Southern Poverty Law Center has reached with their employers.

Migrant workers who alleged they were forced to work for months without pay and endure squalid living conditions as they repaired apartments in the New Orleans area will finally be paid for their work under a settlement the Southern Poverty Law Center has reached with their employers.

Under the settlement, $175,000 will be divided among 39 workers who repaired apartments for Audubon Communities Management following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The sum covers unpaid wages and compensation for claims that include involuntary servitude. The employers did not admit wrongdoing as part of the settlement.

"Tragically, some employers in New Orleans profited by taking advantage of mostly indigent migrant workers who flocked to the city in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina," said Mary Bauer, director of the SPLC's Immigrant Justice Project. "But this settlement sends a strong message that these workers have rights and that employers can be held accountable."

The lawsuit was spurred by the treatment of workers at the storm-damaged Audubon Pointe apartment complex. They were promised a wage of at least $500 a week and an apartment at the complex but alleged that they were routinely cheated out of wages.

Complaints were often met with threats of eviction and deportation.

"They said that we did not have rights in this country and that we had to shut up and continue working if we did not want problems," Reyes Aguilar-Garcia, an Audubon Pointe worker said in an affidavit as part of the SPLC lawsuit.

The workers' apartments had holes in the walls or no finished walls, broken windows, smelly carpets and cockroaches. One worker shared a two-bedroom apartment with seven other workers.

"We rehabilitated our own apartments while we were living there," Misael Garcia-Rodriguez said in an affidavit. "There were almost no finished walls when I arrived there. I put sheetrock in my own apartment."

Despite these conditions, many kept working because they had no alternative. Others couldn't forget a group of workers locked out of their housing and left homeless after complaining to their employers.

"What I had observed really frightened me and I always returned to work when they threatened us," Garcia-Rodriguez said.

Yet it was difficult for them to continue their jobs. They sometimes went as long as 12 weeks without pay. Money for food became scarce.

"On one occasion at work I almost fainted out of hunger and the stress of the problems," Aguilar-Garcia said. "I had to look for food in the [vacant] apartments."

Others said the experience left them humiliated and in debt.

"When I started to work at Audubon Pointe, I never had worked before in the United States," Fredi Umberto Mejivar-Garcia said. "I had no idea that this would be a nightmare that would leave me with debts and that would rob me of my liberty."

The SPLC, along with the Pro Bono Project and the National Employment Law Project, filed the federal lawsuit on the workers' behalf. It charged Audubon Communities Management LLC, its president at the time, Charles Rehyer, and Audubon-Algiers LLC with violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Victims of Trafficking Protection Act.