At least half a dozen people recognized Soni and Castellanos from previous storms. Some showed them fresh injuries they’d got on the job. An undocumented worker from Honduras had an oozing wound in his foot but hadn’t gone to the hospital, because he didn’t have insurance. Omar, an undocumented roofer, said, “Look at my hands”; they glowed red with friction burns from shovelling toxic silt out of a local home without proper gloves. Omar said, “I’m forty-five, and it’s too hard to keep sleeping in a car.”
Some workers lacked even a car to bed down in. Soni approached a man named George, a white worker with a scruffy beard, and asked, “Where are you sleeping?” The man pointed to a patch of pavement in front of a PetSmart. He had no tent, pillow, blanket, or tools. He’d recently got out of jail and hitched a ride to town, hearing that he might find work there even during the pandemic. Soni bought him two sausages from a food truck. “Here’s my cell-phone number,” he said, handing the man a card. “What you’re doing here is an important public service.”
Resilience Force was offering free laminated I.D.s for workers who lacked government identification. Castellanos carried a portable I.D.-maker in a canvas bag, taking names and personal information. Though the I.D.s offered no legal protection, cops sometimes left workers alone if they flashed their blue-and-yellow Resilience Force badge.
Just before sundown, the Resilience Force crew gathered in the parking lot for a worker meeting. Castellanos created a semicircle of folding chairs, and Soni used bales of hay to build a staircase to a stage: the back of a pickup truck flanked by bags of onions. As laborers took their seats, Alvarado polled the group’s storm “résumés”: “Who worked Hurricane Harvey?” Four of them had. Michael? Five. The Baton Rouge floods? Twelve. The early part of the event centered around identity building. “Your work is honorable!” Soni told the group. “If you don’t fix the homes and the schools and the banks, how will people in Lake Charles get back to living?”
Teatro described Resilience Force’s political vision. Locally, it was lobbying community leaders to recognize the value of protecting rebuilders’ rights. Nationally, it was pushing for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented resilience workers. A Honduran man called out, “It’ll never happen.” An older worker retorted, “I came here in the nineties, and I’m legal now. It takes time, but we have to dream big.” Osman asked the audience to share their struggles. One said, “Yesterday, cops came here targeting people with our color skin, as if we were trash.” Soni responded, “You won’t be safe and secure on your own—the cops are organized, ice is organized.” He added, “If you want to enter a common fight, I ask you to stand.” Almost everyone did. Osman closed the meeting by lifting his arms. “Let’s pray,” he said. “Protect us from accidents, protect us from police. Thank you, Jesus. Amen.”
When getting an education in the lives of disaster-recovery workers, you encounter a diverse array of crises. Some of the most striking allegations I heard were of outright labor trafficking. David Gautreaux, a forty-four-year-old roofer, told me that, in 2017, he got excited about a job offer from a North Carolina company fixing roofs in the U.S. Virgin Islands after Hurricane Irma. He said that he was promised twenty-two hundred dollars a week. But, when he arrived, his employer put him in a remote hotel without access to potable water or transportation. He and some of his colleagues worked for nearly a month without pay, according to a lawsuit filed by eight workers last year. “Soon, I’d done gone through all the money I had,” Gautreaux told me. “I’m ashamed to say it, but one day, sitting there with nothing to eat, I stole pork chops to cook.”
Workers told me that one of Gautreaux’s group got a splinter of sheet metal implanted in his eye and was told to walk to the hospital. When members of the group spoke up about their conditions, according to the legal complaint, their bosses “threatened Plaintiffs with death or serious bodily injury, and coerced Plaintiffs to continue working or else they would never be paid.” Jeremy Santos, a foreman from Puerto Rico, told me, “Instead of sending the money back to our wives, our wives are the ones sending money to us, and we’re having to tell them to pawn our tools back home to keep the lights on.” He added, “This is a federal project of the U.S. government—this is fema money! And yet, they say no one is aware of this abuse?” (An attorney for the companies in the case said that they deny the allegations, and the suit has been ordered into arbitration.)
Another widespread threat is assault—physical, verbal, and sexual. In Grand Isle, Louisiana, a white businessman struck two Black women on a hurricane repair crew while shouting racist epithets. (He later pleaded guilty to federal civil-rights violations.) Last summer, after hailstorms struck Loveland, Colorado, two men assessing damaged roofs were reportedly held at gunpoint by a man in fatigues, who described them to police as “antifa guys.” A worker who cleaned out incinerated hotels and office buildings after a recent fire in California told me that the bosses on the project had sexually harassed several women workers, called the men “wetbacks,” and failed to pay them as promised. “Many of the guys had already just lost their homes in the fire, and they were sleeping in their cars, just trying to survive,” he said. “And then, to be cheated?”
Work sites are full of preventable dangers. Consulting with Matt Nadel of the Yale Investigative Reporting Lab, I tallied more than forty resilience workers’ deaths over the past ten years. They died of heatstroke, flesh-eating bacteria, falls, electrocution. Many more deaths have likely never been acknowledged. “There’s a total undercounting of the true number of injuries from disaster cleanups,” Debbie Berkowitz, who during the Obama years worked at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration protecting disaster-recovery workers, told me. “It’s an industry with an incredibly vulnerable workforce made up of many workers of color and immigrant workers who have very high rates of underreporting when they get hurt.”
Wage theft may be the most pervasive problem faced by resilience workers—an economic crime that law enforcement rarely chooses to prosecute. In a study for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and the Fe y Justicia Worker Center, Nik Theodore, a professor at the University of Illinois Chicago, found that more than three-quarters of day laborers in Houston had experienced wage theft, and more than a quarter had been victimized in the month after Hurricane Harvey. Soni dislikes the term “wage theft,” because he believes that it fails to capture the full harm. “In a disaster zone, wage theft isn’t really just wage theft—it’s an index of forced labor,” he told me. If your employer owes you money, you’re paradoxically more, not less, likely to keep showing up to the job, holding out hope of being granted what you’re owed. After a major storm or fire, your only access to safe drinking water and food may come through your employer. “The fear of retaliation is strong, and, if you sit down to strike, you’ll be fired and lose all of your pay,” he said. “In these disaster environments, housing is often provided by the employer, and if you’re not paid you have nowhere else to go. You have no gas money, no car, no choice.”
Biden has spoken often of the jobs that can be created by investing in climate resilience but has said little about how to safeguard this workforce from abuse, which pervades many fema-funded projects. The Trump Administration gutted osha, an already poorly funded agency, and it now has fewer compliance officers than at almost any point in its history. “There’s no army of osha inspectors that can be deployed after a hurricane or other disaster to make sure that the workers involved in the cleanup are safe,” Berkowitz told me. “If the federal government doesn’t step in and think about how to keep cleanup workers protected, we’ll see a whole lot of workers get really, really sick, and die, from all kinds of safety hazards.” Undocumented laborers are often reluctant to bring claims forward. “The legal protections these workers have from retaliation are almost nil,” Berkowitz said.