On Nov. 29, Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported Delmer Joel Ramirez Palma, a construction worker and whistleblower who narrowly survived the Hard Rock Hotel collapse in New Orleans. It did so over objections from the former heads of ICE and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the current head of the Louisiana Workforce Commission, City Council leaders, and countless others with vested interests in uncovering what caused the Hard Rock collapse and how to prevent the next workplace tragedy.
The collapse of the Hard Rock shook New Orleans. With the bodies of two workers still lying unrecovered in the wreckage, we’re a city in need of answers, and in need of justice. And with the federal government abdicating its responsibility for protecting workers, we need bold action from our city government to ensure we never have another Hard Rock. Specifically, we need:
Answers and accountability: In the months before the collapse, Joel repeatedly reported to supervisors that the building was not level. On the day of the collapse, workers raised alarm as contractors installed a massive pool on an upper story despite the building’s concrete still being wet. The collapse was not a freak accident. This was the result of deliberate decisions by contractors who ignored reports and threatened to fire workers who complained, creating a culture of fear that ultimately claimed three workers’ lives. The New Orleans community needs to know who was responsible, and we need them to be held accountable. The city should immediately act to secure Joel’s return so that the investigation is not jeopardized by the loss of his testimony, and should exercise its civil and criminal authority to ensure that accountability is not limited to a slap on the wrist.
Health and safety investigations of other worksites: If such egregious safety violations were possible at the Hard Rock, there are doubtlessly problems with other construction sites around New Orleans. The city should initiate comprehensive investigations to identify and address other unsafe work sites.
Protections for whistleblowers: Joel was not the only one who had noticed or reported problems at the construction site, but after Joel’s arrest, every worker has been too scared to participate in the investigation. The city should support and protect these workers, particularly where the federal government has not, by creating a new department within the Human Rights Commission to investigate whistleblower complaints and protect whistleblowers and witnesses.
Trust restored with workers who are particularly vulnerable to silencing and retaliation: Every time undocumented New Orleanians seeks help from the city, they have to wonder if their data will end up in the hands of ICE and they will end up in the same situation as Joel. Every time black New Orleanians walk onto a job site they have to wonder if a city government that has promoted post-Katrina redevelopment that pushed out communities of color will have their back. The city needs to rebuild trust with workers. First, the Council should pass a comprehensive ordinance that guarantees no Orleans Parish agency will facilitate deportations, either through conspiring to deport residents or through sharing data with ICE. Second, the Council and mayor should ensure that the city’s Local Hire Ordinance is fully enforced through proactive investigations and that major development projects benefit local, black workers.
Strengthened regulation of developers and contractors: The safety violations, lack of adequate training and rampant misclassification of workers as subcontractors at the Hard Rock site all violated existing regulations, but the city’s laws regulating developers and contractors lack teeth. The city should pass a new Responsible Bidder Ordinance to ensure that only companies that are committed to safety receive city funds and tax breaks.
Joel took an enormous risk in raising concerns about the Hard Rock site, and rather than being supported, he was torn away from his family and home of 19 years. His deportation has now further strengthened the hands of employers who silence workers and jeopardize lives across the city. We need immediate action from the city to keep all workers and all New Orleanians safe. Until workers — regardless of race, country of origin, immigration status, or conviction history — can trust the city government to protect workers who organize and raise concerns, every construction project risks becoming another Hard Rock.
Ursula Price heads the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice. Robert "Tiger" Hammond is president of the Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO.