U.S.

Immigrant laborers pave road back from Sandy

Day laborers lead building efforts in the still recovering Northeast

NEW YORK — Eudes was working the demolition crews three weeks after Hurricane Sandy tore through New York and New Jersey. First as a volunteer and, later, as a hired hand in the Breezy Point section of Queens, Eudes hoisted waterlogged couches and mattresses out of flooded basements. He ripped out soggy carpets and mold-infested walls.

As the recovery has turned to rebuilding, homeowners and contractors have come to rely on Eudes' skills as a carpenter, tiler and painter to install new floors, put up fresh wallboard, and lay tile. An undocumented immigrant from Mexico, Eudes, 42, has noticed changes in the treatment of day laborers after Sandy — even though their idling on street corners still irks some local residents. 

"They talk to us a little better, treat us with a little more respect," Eudes, a native of Puebla, speaking in Spanish, said of employers, who seem friendlier than before the storm, greeting him warmly and urging him to be careful on the job. "The need is so great. We’re becoming indispensable — we hope."   

In a region where anti-immigrant sentiment has occasionally led to hate crimes, immigrant laborers, many of them Latino and undocumented, have become essential in the post-Sandy landscape, according to advocates, academics and even homeowners who never considered hiring them before.

"The irony is that many immigrant day laborers are working on rebuilding and repairing the housing for homeowners without even knowing where they'll be housed [themselves]," said Jackie Vimo, advocacy director for the nonprofit New York Immigration Coalition.

Largely struggling to eke out a living since the housing market collapse, day laborers in the New York region are experiencing a trend that was crucial to the rebuilding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Nearly half of New Orleans' reconstruction workforce was Latino — 54 percent of them undocumented, according to one study, which said they performed the lowest-paid and most hazardous jobs

Unlike in New Orleans, where thousands of Latinos — both legal residents from other states and recently arrived undocumented immigrants — arrived after the storm in search of construction work, New York's Latino immigrants were already here. But many were hit doubly hard by a storm that left them homeless, jobless and scared to seek assistance for fear of deportation. Immigration status disqualified many from receiving local, state and federal disaster aid.

"Sandy is helping many immigrant families recover," said Ligia Guallpa, director of the Workers Justice Project, which runs a job center out of a shipping container near a Toys 'R' Us at a mall in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Eudes, the day laborer from Puebla, confirmed this, saying that his three sons, ages 16, 15 and 9, have benefited from the increase in work and income: "We brought toys and bikes and new beds."

"They could feed their families and think about kids' going to college and making a living here," Guallpa added. "But, at the same time, a lot of families also live here and suffered damages in the storm and never received a cent in government assistance."

In May alone, she said, the 156 registered workers at the center generated nearly $45,000 in wages at 71 jobs, including 58 Sandy-related projects. It was the highest amount in nearly a decade. "Sandy is doing her part," she told a recent gathering of workers. Since December 2012, workers have generated wages of $141,403 at 361 jobs, the majority involving hurricane-damaged homes.  

Learning from Katrina

Day laborer advocates in the New York region said they took lessons from Katrina, particularly in dealing with health and safety issues.

In New Orleans, the easing of labor regulations after the storm resulted in exploitation, harassment and safety shortcuts, according to a joint study by the University of California at Berkeley and Tulane University in 2006. The influx of Latinos angered many longtime residents, who accused the new arrivals of depressing wages. At a post-Katrina business forum, former mayor Ray Nagin infamously asked, "How do I ensure that New Orleans is not overrun by Mexican workers?"

Saket Soni, executive director of the National Guestworker Alliance and the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice, which helped organize day laborers after Katrina, said immigrant workers became "disposable."

"Immigrant workers were often retrieving dead bodies from homes without gloves and masks," he told Al Jazeera. "Workers who were injured on the job, instead of being compensated for their injuries, were simply discarded."

In the New York region, however, a robust network of day laborer organizations has sought to protect workers against abuses, Soni said. "The day laborer work centers … are now best suited to both train workers on health and safety practices but also make sure that workers are trained and collectively monitoring and holding employers accountable."

At the Bay Parkway Community Job Center in Brooklyn and in similar programs from Staten Island to the Jersey Shore, advocates have been enrolling laborers in courses ranging from scaffold safety to Occupational Safety & Health Administration training. There were sessions on the safe removal of toxic molds. And centers filed Labor Department complaints against employers who didn't pay.

Diego Palaguachi, who has been leading occupational safety training for day laborers on Long Island and Staten Island through the nonprofit Make the Road New York, told Al Jazeera he has heard reports of laborers' being underpaid and working in unsafe conditions without proper equipment. Gonzalo Mercado, executive director of El Centro del Inmigrante, a day laborers’ program on Staten Island, said his organization holds meetings with workers as well as city and recovery officials to ensure that the rights of laborers are protected.

Hurricane Sandy sent the Brooklyn job center — housed in an 8-by-12-foot wooden shack at the time — hurtling into the parking lot of the adjacent shopping center. Workers moved the structure, which remained largely intact, back to its original site at the edge of Gravesend Bay. It was later replaced by the 40-foot shipping container.

"The center had to be rebuilt right away," said Guallpa, whose nonprofit group is an affiliate of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. "We couldn’t wait. Going back to the corners wasn’t an option. The workers knew that this was a time that their labor was going to be needed."

Unlike day laborers who wait on various street corners throughout the region for potential employers, workers at the Brooklyn job center use it as a hiring hall. They wait there for employers, who must sign a contract and agree to wages set by the center, which, in turn, guarantees the work. The rates are posted: $180 for eight hours of brick work, $120 to $150 for demolition, $180 for roofing and $160 for painting. Each worker donates $10 to the center after every new job. Although some job center workers are undocumented, they still register for a government tax ID and pay state and federal taxes.

The day laborers also gather for a weekly meeting, in which they plan volunteer work brigades for Sandy victims, discuss the latest in immigration reform and learn about upcoming hiring opportunities.

Women join in the rebuilding

At a recent meeting, Guallpa asked the workers, mostly men, how they felt about recruiting women who make a living as domestics to do cleaning after reconstruction projects.

"We don't have enough workers for cleaning work," she said. "We want to recruit more women."

"Are they single?" one man asked, making the others laugh. "Are they looking for husbands?"

"This is serious," Guallpa replied. "Most of them are cleaners but some of them do heavier work. One of the women I met does tile work. Another one paints. But I wanted to talk to you because sometimes you make comments that could make women feel uncomfortable. Like you, they're trying to put food on the table."

The workers voted to invite the women to their group.

In fact, Guallpa said, the demand for labor is so great that the number of corners where workers gather has risen from two to six in south Brooklyn alone.

"There were restaurant workers who had never thought of becoming day laborers, but they lost their restaurant jobs after the storm," she said. "They ended up on the corners looking for work. They’re learning new skills and earning decent wages, but they are struggling just to get back to where they were."

One day laborer gathering spot is outside a pizza shop near the corner of Bay Parkway and 65th Street in Bensonhurst. A gaggle of young men, some in their teens, idled with their backpacks along the busy street on a recent morning.

Rafael, 31, a native of Guatemala, said he typically earned about $550 a week painting and hanging sheetrock at storm-damaged homes.  

"Sometimes they don’t pay us," he said. "I was at one house and finished for the day and the person who hired me never showed up to pay. I just left."

"What can we do?" asked another day laborer, Alejandro, 25, also from Guatemala. "We don't have documents. But you see more and more workers coming out every day."

Peter, a firefighter whose two-story home in Breezy Point was nearly destroyed by Sandy, started hiring workers from the Bay Parkway Community Job Center after finding a flyer on the windshield of his car.

"It's a monumental job," said Peter, whose first floor was flooded with four feet of water, about the rebuilding of his home. "Contractors had been coming to the house.… I had to get this work done. But no one really put a hammer to a nail until I ran into these guys. They could do anything."

At the very tip of the Rockaways peninsula, an out-of-control fire ravaged the predominantly middle- and working-class enclave when Sandy struck on the night of Oct. 29. Home to numerous firefighters and police officers, the close-knit community suffered one of the worst residential fires in New York history. More than 100 homes were destroyed and dozens more damaged in a blaze that burned for more than 40 hours — just a small portion of the $9.7 billion in damage to housing stock in the state.      

Peter said most homeowners rebuilding in the gated community where he lives employ day laborers. "The people I talk to are happier with the day laborers than they are with the contractors," he said, adding that the immigrant workers were often more reliable.

One worker Peter hired is Francisco, 45, a native of the central Mexican state of Hidalgo, who said the post-storm rebuilding has meant a semblance of stability.    

"Sandy was horrible," he said. "There was so much destruction. But this disaster has brought us together. People appreciate that we are hardworking. They no longer see us as enemies."

While a number of day laborers said conditions were improving, Guallpa, the Workers Justice Project's director, told Al Jazeera that the value of immigrant labor remains underappreciated.  

"The face of immigrant day laborers remains largely invisible," she said. "The heroes are usually the firefighters and the police and city officials. For the first time, we were the first responders."

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