Elizabeth_Fussell

Recovery from the 2017 Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria will take years, if not decades. Hurricane Katrina taught New Orleanians a lesson that all Americans should recall as recovery workers undertake the hard work to make Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands habitable again.

The George W. Bush administration took a quick and dirty approach to hasten the Hurricane Katrina cleanup and lower costs: It suspended federal regulations that guaranteed environmental, labor and health standards in the disaster zone and ensured competition in federal contracting. In addition, it suspended immigration enforcement. Since many immigrants affected by Hurricane Katrina might have lost their documents in the disaster, employers were not required to ask for proof of employment eligibility. These actions enabled construction contractors to obtain large federal grants and to hire any workers that would accept the standards established by employers.

The post-Katrina suspension of the Davis-Bacon Act meant that employers with federal grants were not required to pay their employees at the wage levels, with benefits and overtime that prevail in a particular region. This means that those hired to perform construction labor on federally funded projects did not have to be paid a fair wage. Other suspensions meant that employers did not need to apply affirmative action in hiring or require workers to prove they were eligible for employment in the United States. Furthermore, by suspending the enforcement of Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards, there was no workplace oversight that ensured workers had the knowledge and equipment that would protect them from health and safety hazards.

Even after these regulations were reinstated, the lack of staffing in the federal agencies charged with enforcing these regulations meant that workers were not protected. Any violation of a worker’s rights was only enforced on the basis of worker complaints after the fact. Incredibly, the number of investigations of crimes against workers by the Department of Labor in New Orleans dropped from 70 in the year before Hurricane Katrina to only 44 in the 11 months after the disaster largely because the district office was in disarray and no additional support from the federal headquarters was provided. In short, there was no capacity to protect workers from labor abuse during this chaotic time.

In October 2007, more than two years after the Katrina disaster, Congress heard testimony from workers in a hearing that looked at the Department of Labor’s performance in investigating and prosecuting wage and hour violations and protecting guest workers. These riveting testimonies stand as historical documentation of workers’ terrible working and living conditions, the abuses they faced and the indifference of the federal government in redressing these abuses.

One worker, Jeffrey Steele, summarized his situation, and foreshadowed our situation now:

“I went to New Orleans to help and to be part of history. I did the dirty, hard cleanup work that was needed. But, like a lot of other workers, I was taken advantage of by contractor after contractor. I have been seeking justice, but haven’t seen it yet ... This is not about (me). It’s about the small men and women, like me, who don’t have a voice. There may be another disaster like this in some other state and town. Who can tell me how workers will be treated? Can you tell me who will protect us the next time?”

The hurricanes in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are “the next time,” and we can expect there will be more in coming hurricane seasons. Now is the time to prevent the worker abuses that we saw after Hurricane Katrina. To date, the Trump administration’s approach to recovery has been to provide emergency assistance, but we have yet to see how the rebuilding will unfold in each of these places. The lesson learned from New Orleans after Katrina is that the federal government should enforce, rather than suspend, the policies and protections that protect recovery workers.

Elizabeth Fussell is an associate professor of population studies and environmental studies at Brown University and a member of the New Orleans chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network. She lived in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck and has researched the long-term recovery of the city and its residents — in New Orleans and elsewhere — for the past 12 years.