Threat and Response Management, University of Chicago

Threat and Response Management, University of Chicago

Threat and Response Management, University of Chicago

Problem Statement

Major disasters exacerbate conditions of vulnerability in affected communities, providing the opportunity for human traffickers to take advantage of disaster survivors. Prevailing wage laws, such as the federal Davis-Bacon Act, require federally contracted businesses to provide standardized wages and working conditions, as is often the case for major disaster response and recovery efforts. Implemented as an effort to encourage quicker post- disaster response and recovery, the occasional suspension of these laws by leaders may lead to an increase of labor-related trafficking cases in the affected area. Emergency managers, first responders, and community managers may not be aware of this problem as a study to uncover the nexus between suspending prevailing wage laws and labor exploitation has not yet been conducted. Businesses that procure federal contracts, however, are primed to take advantage of any opportunity available to decrease costs and are incentivized to pay employees below the prevailing wage during these suspension periods. The result of these compounding factors can lead to a complex tapestry of severely exploited workers and broken promises of an expedited recovery for the communities affected.

The goal of this research is to determine the relationship between the suspension of prevailing wage laws following a disaster declaration and the changes in human trafficking patterns, specifically cases of labor exploitation, as they relate to the disaster geography and population. The data compiled in this research will be used to assist in the develop of anti-human trafficking-focused training material for community leaders, disaster management professionals, and first responders.

Research Questions

  1. What is the relationship between suspending prevailing wage laws following a disaster and labor exploitation cases in affected areas?
  2. Is there an increase in disaster recovery contract procurement when a prevailing wage law is suspended following a disaster?


There are many forms of human trafficking (HT), each of which exploit its survivors and victims in dehumanizing and harmful manners. The most common conception of trafficking is the image of people forced into sex work by nefarious strangers in back alleys. Although sex trafficking cases can be perpetrated by strangers, HT perpetrators are often known to the victim such as a neighbor, partner, or even parent (United States Department of Justice, 2017). Additionally, the majority of HT cases worldwide do not involve sex work but rather the exploitation of non-sexual labor and the mistreatment of workers (Boria, 2016). These nuances in definitions and practice contribute to the difficult in detecting, preventing, and prosecuting HT cases.


Anti-human trafficking agencies and scholars have attempted to consolidate the several iterations of HT definitions. For the purpose of this paper, “HT” will address both sexual and labor exploitation, while the research included in the paper will examine the labor exploitation form of HT. The most common U.S. definition of labor exploitation is as follows:

The obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery. (United States Department of State, 2021, June)

Human traffickers exploit communities and individuals that are among the most vulnerable to society. Through factors such as socioeconomic status, citizenship, or agency, vulnerable populations are more susceptible to being exploited by human trafficking (United States Department of State, 2021). When a disaster affects a community, normal social safety systems are threatened, and already vulnerable communities or individuals become more susceptible to becoming a victim of HT because of the instability created by the disaster. Unfortunately, the actions of community leaders, however well intentioned, may also contribute to negative outcomes for both individuals and the surrounding communities following a disaster.

Disaster managers are tasked with responding to disasters to save lives and restore communities following a major incident. Their training covers responses to incidents and anticipation of the cascading events that may result from the original incident. Typical disaster management training focuses on how to respond to countless natural cascading events, such as inoperable communication systems after hurricane-related outages or the spread of infectious disease in congregate sheltering. The possible labor exploitation that follows the suspension of prevailing wage laws during a disaster response is a unique man-made cascading event in that an increase in labor exploitation cases may occur as a direct result of well-intentioned actions taken by disaster managers and community leaders. Whatever the intention behind suspending these laws, leaders may not be aware of the devastating harms inflicted on the survivors, victims, and communities as a result.

The most notable occurrence of the suspension of these laws in the United States occurred when George W. Bush suspended the Davis-Bacon Act (DBA), a federal law that mandates contractors receiving federal funds to pay prevailing union wages, after Hurricane Katrina. This suspension was intended to expedite the Hurricane Katrina recovery effort by temporarily reducing the administrative overhead of reviewing minimum worker wages and direct recovery costs of higher worker standards (Hepburn, 2016). This decision seems logical on the surface as the administration was facing an unprecedented challenge in its response to Katrina. The lessons learned from Katrina, and in part the research in this paper, can be used to help develop competent emergency managers and public leaders to effectively respond to crises.

As a nascent field, emergency management is becoming more standardized; however, the training covering the nexus between human trafficking and disasters is either surface level information or has not yet been required consistently across the field. For example, FEMA employees are required to take a 30-minute training on human trafficking during disasters, which only provides minimal signs of HT and does not discuss the risks of disaster management decisions that can unintentionally affect human trafficking. Other response agencies may not mandate HT training at all. As a result, many emergency managers may not be aware that the decision to suspend prevailing wage laws can lead to more HT cases as was the result of the DBA suspension after Hurricane Katrina.

Conversely, businesses, in general and especially during a crisis, are incentivized to take advantage of opportunities to decrease their costs, such as no longer being required to pay the prevailing wage. Although some businesses taking advantage of a DBA suspension may not want to exploit their workers to the level of trafficking, removing the federal prevailing wage requirement removes one more barrier to exploitation for workers in the disaster area. It is in the interest and creed of the disaster management profession to understand these threats and the greater context of the disaster environment to help prevent additional cases of labor exploitation of vulnerable individuals during the disaster responses they manage.

The research complied in this paper is designed to discover the relationship between the suspension of the DBA and HT cases in the affected communities and how federally contracted businesses reacted to these suspensions compared to similar disasters without a suspension period. The data compiled as a result of this study is intended to be incorporated into a comprehensive anti-human trafficking training for community leaders, disaster managers, and first responders to prevent more HT cases as a result of suspending prevailing wage laws during a disaster response.

Read or download full report here.