The parking lot of Lowe’s Home Improvement in the St. Roch neighborhood of New Orleans is much like the parking lots of other big-box building-supply stores across the country. The curb near the exit is what Latino day laborers call an esquina, or “corner,” where they congregate and wait for contractors with drywalls to install, or suburban dads with junk that needs hauling. Beginning at dawn, people with jobs of all sizes drive up to these corners and select workers to perform difficult manual labor for below minimum wage, or specialized work for as much as $15 an hour.
One humid evening in May around sunset, a few dozen men, most of them from Honduras and Mexico, are cracking beers and socializing around quitting time. A smaller group squats around a dusk-lit game of small-stakes craps.
Lurking on the outskirts of the game and sipping a soda is David Solomon Vasquez, an ebullient 24-year-old Honduran wearing a Dodgers cap. Vasquez has been coming to this corner since the age of 14, when he joined thousands of other Latino workers in a mass migration to the city in the roiling wake of the flood that followed Hurricane Katrina, a Category 3 storm when it hit the Big Easy. Asked about his decade in New Orleans, Vasquez first recalls the horrors of the early days, when the detritus he removed from homes included water-bloated corpses. “Even months later, you’d find a lot of bodies,” says Vasquez. “In one attic we found an old lady and a young boy, her grandson. They were trying to escape the water, but it got them. Even after they removed the bodies, the smell stayed for days.”
The hanging stench of death proved a temporary aspect of post-Katrina New Orleans. Vasquez goes on to describe a more enduring feature of life for those who cleaned up and then rebuilt the Crescent City: rampant wage theft. Early in his tenure here, Vasquez learned that contractors could not be trusted like the contractors in Nevada, his first stop after leaving home. As the 10th anniversary of Katrina approached, Vasquez rattles off stories of employers cheating him out of his wages. Many of these stories involve threats of violence, including one from just the month before.
We’d finish a job, and they’d tell us to go around back in the parking lot to get paid. Then they’d call the police or immigration. Other times they said, ‘The money is coming. Come back next week.’ Then they just disappeared.
Jose Cabrera, New Orleans construction worker
“I worked with five guys for three or four days on this house,” he says. “We were supposed to get $120 a day. The contractor kept telling us, ‘Come back tomorrow for your money.’ We waited and waited. Finally we said, ‘We’re calling the cops.’ He puts a gun to my neck, says, ‘You want me to call the police?’ So he called the cops—who were his friends. They warned us we were trespassing and told us to go home. This happens a lot. I try to stay away from contractors I don’t know.” (The communications director, public affairs division for New Orleans Police Department, Tyler A. Gamble, emailed that ensuring compliance with federal labor laws "is not the responsibility of NOPD.")
During a decade of fast-paced and rough-and-tumble post-Katrina reconstruction, contractors have stolen an estimated aggregate fortune worth millions of dollars from migrant workers like Vasquez. Accounts by him, other migrant workers, employment lawyers, workers’ advocates, and others paint a picture of systematic and multifaceted exploitation. Wages go unpaid or underpaid. Police are unresponsive or aggressive. (Gamble did not respond to this point.) Law and policy in Louisiana tilt heavily to employers over workers: The state does not have a department of labor, the agency that in many states acts as a watchdog against wage theft and enforces the laws meant to inoculate against it; the responsibility for recovering wages lies entirely with the worker. Legal experts’ efforts to engage the state’s attorney general in addressing the problem have not been fruitful; meanwhile, the political climate is openly hostile to new migrants and the communities they’ve built in the city’s outer suburbs.
“People have done months of work without getting paid,” says Jose Cabrera, a construction worker in the city since 2005, “and the city doesn’t care.”
Whether it’s underpayment for day jobs at private homes or brazen nonpayment for months of work on major projects, accounting for the total is impossible. But workers and experts estimate that as much as a quarter of all work done by migrants since late 2005 has gone unpaid. In other words, it has been slave labor.
Now, an expanding coalition of migrant workers, attorneys, law students, and community organizers is banding together to fight for workers’ rights and pay, winning multiple lawsuits seeking to recover unpaid wages. New Orleans since the flood has become the nation’s flash point in the battle against wage theft, which a 2009 study by UCLA and others found affects two-thirds of low-wage workers in major American cities, each of them robbed of more than $2,600 a year.
“We file claims totaling between $200,000 and $300,000 every year,” says Luz Molina, Jack Nelson Distinguished Professor of Law and director of the Workplace Justice Project at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law. “And we’re just a small clinic with a handful of volunteers. The real amount easily runs into the millions every year. When you’re already living on poverty’s edge, it doesn’t take much to lose your home and destroy the life you’ve built.”
When New Orleans woke up on the morning of Tuesday, Aug. 30, many thought it had been spared the worst of Hurricane Katrina. The Associated Press was reporting, in a story datelined Aug. 30, “the doomsday vision of hurricane waters spilling over levees and swamping the city…never materialized.” But the Lower Ninth Ward was already under six feet of water, and two breaches in poorly maintained levees were confirmed that day. The city slowly flooded with water from Lake Ponchartrain, and by noon Wednesday, 85 percent of the city was underwater.
Jose Cabrera was 52 and watching it all from his home near Pensacola, Florida. Like so many people around the world, he was moved by the images of suffering coming out of New Orleans. But his mind also turned to practical thoughts about new employment opportunities. Since emigrating to Houston from El Salvador in 1981, Cabrera had worked around the region as a “hurricane chaser,” a contract laborer who follows natural disasters and the federal aid and private insurance dollars that can fund years of steady work in cleanup and reconstruction. In 2004, Cabrera followed Hurricane Ivan to Pensacola; in 2005, he joined a bus convoy into a postapocalyptic New Orleans organized by the global property-repair contractor Belfor.
At the time, the National Guard was blocking access into the city. But federal emergency measures made exceptions for contract workers like Cabrera, thousands of whom were rushed in to do the difficult, dangerous work of removing detritus and bodies from buildings and fastening tarps over houses whose roofs had been blown off. “Of all the disasters I’ve seen, this was something different, like a nightmare,” Cabrera says at his home in East New Orleans. So great was the need for mobile, low-wage labor to end the nightmare and get the city back on its feet that the Bush administration lifted sanctions on federal contractors hiring undocumented workers. “Latino migrants poured in from all over the south in the week after the storm,” says Cabrera. “We were sleeping in all the downtown hotels at night, cleaning and tarping them during the day.”
In the weeks and months that followed, Cabrera worked for numerous contractors. They ranged from global firms like Belfor to fly-by-night middlemen gold-rushing the federal spigot. As men like Cabrera and his largely Latino fellow crew members slowly returned the city to normalcy, employers provided them with food, tools, and cots—but not always the money they were owed.
“There were times when we’d finish a job, and they’d tell us to go wait around back in the parking lot to get paid,” says Cabrera. “Then they’d call the police or immigration. I have my papers, but the guys who didn’t would get scared and run away. Other times, they’d pay us but not everything they owed us. Or they said, ‘The money is coming. Come back next week.’ Then they just disappeared.”
Not paying workers, says Cabrera, remains a regular occurrence in New Orleans. “Out of 100 jobs, I’d say we get underpaid or unpaid on 25 of them,” he says. “If a worker like me knows his rights and has a lawyer, then contractors get angry and make threats. One told me, ‘If you make trouble, I’m gonna come kill you and your family.’ ”
The scale of the wage theft in the decade since Katrina has disturbing echoes of the early history of New Orleans, whose very foundation was built with slave labor 300 years ago. The city’s first levees were dug and fortified by convicts and contract laborers shipped in by the French government. When they died en masse from disease and exhaustion, the colonial authorities imported African slaves, who finished their work and built out the system of drainage ditches that allowed the city to grow.
Before Katrina, the population of New Orleans largely reflected its early makeup. It was a city of black and white, with a negligible Latino population compared with other boomtowns of the New South. This changed when the storm displaced many of the city’s working-class residents, including many of the African Americans employed in construction. Within a year of Katrina, more than half of New Orleans’ 36,000 construction workers were Latino, mostly from Mexico and Honduras. At first, many occupied abandoned houses in the city center. With time, they made homes in communities in outer neighborhoods like East New Orleans, where large numbers of Vietnamese also began to settle. An estimated 90 percent of the city’s new Latino residents are undocumented.
Latinos were vulnerable to workplace abuse in ways the workers they replaced were not. Elizabeth Fussell, a sociologist who has studied demographic shifts in post-Katrina New Orleans, describes how a “deportation threat dynamic” contributed to a culture of rampant worker abuse and employer impunity that remains.
“The biggest nightmare for everyone here is deportation, which means you have to pay another $5,000 to the cartels to get back across the border,” Lionel, a 53-year-old Mexican who didn’t want his last name used for fear of losing out on job opportunities, tells me in the Lowe’s parking lot. “The fear is strong. It keeps people from doing anything about [stolen] wages that puts them in contact with authorities. Even if [the contractor] is the one breaking the law, you just want to keep your head down.”
Contractors have traded on that fear. In 2006, Santos Canales was one of 2,000 workers hired to reconstruct the Astor Crowne Plaza–New Orleans French Quarter hotel, a stately institution at Canal and Bourbon. “When we went to claim our wages,” Canales says, “they suddenly asked for our social security numbers. Half of us had fake social security cards or knew how to get one. But a lot of the others didn’t know. They never got paid. Contractors were playing tricks all the time. The problem is the same now.” (A representative of the Crowne Plaza's parent company, Six Continents Hotels, Inc., did not respond to requests for comment.)
Every day you heard about someone getting cheated. I lost a month’s salary when the contractor went back to Texas. My wife was pregnant at the time. That’s when I started to organize.
Santos Alvarado, New Orleans construction worker
Migrants often must go to extreme efforts to recover wages, including time-consuming and costly out-of-state trips to the headquarters of contracting companies. When they join together and contact the authorities, they’re dismissed if not harassed. “The police, they say, ‘I can’t do anything if you weren’t physically attacked.’ ” says Canales. “They’ll arrest someone for stealing a one-dollar soda but do nothing to people who steal thousands of dollars. The city won’t do anything either. There’s only the courts, but that takes time and money. A lot of guys can’t afford that.”
I met Canales at the offices of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, located in a large two-story house in the historically black neighborhood of Treme. In December 2006, the center founded the Congress of Day Laborers, which is now New Orleans’ main force organizing for migrant rights. The congress meets weekly to discuss wage theft and other issues, including strained relations between African American workers and the city’s recent Latino arrivals. Organizers with the center hatched the idea for the congress after visiting the new corners that sprouted after Katrina. There they heard recurring stories of illegal activity by contractors, from wage theft to workplace-safety violations.
“Wage theft remains prevalent, but it was worse during the first years after Katrina,” says Jolene Elberth, a 27-year-old full-time organizer with the congress. “Wages were horrible. The National Guard was harassing the esquinas. The city was lawless and reckless—it felt like any developing country.” The congress, which started with three workers, now claims a network of 200 Latino laborers working to educate their peers and push for enforcement of fair labor practices.
One of the congress’ senior organizers is Santos Alvarado, 35, a Honduran who has been in New Orleans since 2005. Over the last decade, he has witnessed many of the tactics used to withhold wages. Alvarado was one of 250 workers who in 2007 helped rebuild a large hotel before the contractor disappeared without paying them. “It happened to people in most of the hotels at some point,” he says. Alvarado claims contractors committed wage theft of one sort or another at most of the city’s marquee institutions that had storm or flood damage.
“There was a lot of work after the storm, but every day you heard about someone getting cheated,” he says. “It could be any size contractor—you just had to trust what they told you. Six years ago, I lost a month’s salary when the contractor went back to Texas. My wife was pregnant at the time. We got kicked out of our apartment. That’s when I started to organize.”
In September 2005, around the time Jose Cabrera’s bus of migrant workers was waved through a National Guard checkpoint, Loyola law school professor Luz Molina sneaked around one. Evacuating the city in advance of the storm, Molina figured she would only be gone a couple of days. Once the full measure of the disaster became clear, she realized she would be away for a while. But she needed to get back into the city to retrieve her cats. So while her colleagues set up temporary offices in Houston, she made it into New Orleans. “I did instantly get the sense that the New Orleans we knew and experienced prior to Katrina had ceased to exist,” she wrote in an email last week.
For a legal academic working at the intersection of labor and immigration law, the city offered a rich environment for research and practice even before Katrina. “Doing employment law in this state is like returning to the times when dinosaur roamed,” she says. Almost as soon as she was set up and working again, the wage-theft issue reared its head: “Very early on, it was clear there was going to be issues with the new migrant workers, and I started holding meetings with them right away.”
By January, Molina had raised enough funds from Catholic charities to begin offering legal advice from a desk in the offices of the Service Employees International Union on Canal Street. Soon she was taking her first cases to trial, winning them with the help of Loyola law student volunteers. Around the time of the flood’s second anniversary, her dean offered to house a Wage Claim Clinic at the law school. It is from these offices that Molina now leads a full-time staff of three and a rotating cast of student volunteers. In nine years, the clinic has taken more than 60 wage-theft cases to trial, winning almost all of them.
“Winning judgments isn’t the hard part,” she says. Even in Louisiana, stealing is stealing. “It’s collecting the money. Employers are totally unregulated. Maybe they have no assets, or you can’t find them. We spend a lot of money hiring private detectives to track down contractors who live in Texas, Georgia, Florida.”
One morning, I visit the Jefferson Parish district court in Gretna, just across from New Orleans on the southern bank of the Mississippi. Molina, with assistance from a Loyola student volunteer, is representing Javier Ocampo and Dennis Ordonez, two Hondurans claiming $1,000 each in unpaid wages from a small local company called La Maison Contracting.
As they wait for the judge to call their case, the men tell me this is not their first experience with wage theft, though it is their first experience fighting back. “Often workers just don’t have any faith in official channels. There’s no government enforcement, no mechanism to prevent wage theft from happening on a massive scale,” says Shaughnessy Zambolla, a young attorney with the clinic.
Outside the courtroom, I ask the defendant, a well-heeled middle-aged woman named Nicole Maronge, what she thinks of Ocampo's and Ordonez's claims. She says she didn’t pay the plaintiffs because they didn’t respect her deadlines, and that is her right. “I know there are a lot of bad contractors out there, ones who don’t pay workers,” says Maronge. “I’m not one of those. But I have to make deadlines, and lots of Latinos could give a rat’s ass about deadlines. The quality of the workers has gone down since Katrina.”
She adds, “It really P.O.s me when they come here illegally and think they have the same rights as people who are citizens.” (The 14th Amendment entitles “any person” in the jurisdiction of the United States to equal protection under the law. Federal labor statutes require, and U.S. Supreme Court rulings have upheld, that people be paid for their work regardless of immigration status.)
Hector Carnero, a Mexican resident of New Orleans who has won back wages with the help of Molina’s team, has a different view. “This work we do, on roofs, in the heat, lifting the foundations of houses—it’s very hard, very dirty work,” he says. “Most people can’t do this work. And then not to pay us? The city should be helping us. It is a great injustice.”