After natural disasters, workers rebuild — and face exploitation

Immigrant workers and day laborers are especially vulnerable to health risks and wage theft.


When the Camp Fire swept through the town of Paradise in Northern California, it destroyed more than 18,000 structures in its path. The wildfire reduced schools, churches, residences and businesses to piles of rubble and toxic ash, and a years-long cleanup and rebuilding are underway. If history serves as any indicator, immigrants will play an outsized role in completing this hazardous work, a common pattern after natural disasters. But economics and immigration status can leave them vulnerable to exploitation in dangerous cleanup situations.

While some of the recovery after a natural disaster is done by people trained to handle hazardous materials, many subcontractors utilize an informal labor force made up of construction crews, domestic workers and day laborers, who lack that training. But dangers hide among the damage: A job as innocuous as removing furniture from a damaged house or ripping out drywall, for example, might expose a worker to asbestos and mold, toxins that can lead to long-term health effects.

Work crews clear debris after the Tubbs Fire went through Santa Rosa, California, last year.
Jeff Chiu/AP Images File

The $3 billion cleanup of this year’s California fires, for its part, will entail everything from removing felled trees and large pieces of debris to containing hazardous chemicals like pesticides and paint solvents. California has standards in place to protect workers, including laws that require employers to provide proper training and protective gear. But the state’s enforcement mechanism for these rules — the Division of Occupational Safety and Health, or Cal/OSHA — is severely under resourced, said Jessica Martinez, the co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, a federation of worker advocacy groups. The department is authorized to employ just 275 inspectors, which amounts to one inspector for roughly every 60,000 workers in the state. A complaint “could take years” to be investigated, she said. That leaves employers with little scrutiny into their workplace safety practices.

“Legally (employers) are supposed to provide a healthy and safe working environment,” said Nicole Marquez, a senior staff attorney with Worksafe, a California-based workers-rights organization. “But a lot of times that just doesn’t happen.” Paying for trainings and protective gear like N95 masks, which protects against things like mold, takes money from a businesses’ bottom line. Because the work is often performed through temporary contracts — or in many cases by day laborers — the mentality is that safety-related expenses just aren’t worth the cost. Last year, San Francisco-based public media outlet KQED detailed several allegations of worker safety violations by Ashbritt, Inc., a company that held one of the largest cleanup contracts after 2017’s wildfires. In response, Ashbritt CEO Brittany Perkins maintained that the company addressed protective gear concerns. In the company’s core values she said, “Number one is safety first.”

UNDOCUMENTED WORKERS ARE a large part of disaster cleanups and their immigration status makes them even more vulnerable, especially if they’ve been impacted by a disaster personally: Undocumented residents don’t qualify for certain Federal Emergency Management Agency benefits, a government program that provides monies to natural disaster victims. And if they or someone from their family lacks legal status, “they might be less likely to have evacuated to shelters or sought out help, because of fear in the current political climate,” said Elizabeth Fussell, a researcher who studied the arrival of the Latino labor force in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

These same fears of being found out can prevent laborers from reporting unsafe work conditions. “Many of these communities are very fearful of anything that has to do with the government,” said Martinez. This fear is well-founded. In 2005, immigration officials impersonated OSHA officers in North Carolina to lure laborers to a meeting, where they made dozens of arrests.

Undocumented status can also make workers easy targets for wage theft in the rebuilding period following natural disasters, according to the nonprofit American Public Health Association. Examples include not being paid final wages when a job is done, or getting bad checks. Indeed, researchers at the University of Illinois found that over a quarter of immigrant day laborers interviewed, many of whom were undocumented, were victims of wage theft after Hurricane Harvey. At a public meeting in Houston, workers spoke about their experiences with exploitation after the hurricane, The Guardian reported. “It’s sad because we all count on our weekly pay to survive,” explained Claudia (last name withheld) who is originally from Colombia. Her employer disappeared before she was paid for her work after the hurricane, she told The Guardian. “Many of my co-workers are fearful that another contractor will come and do the same thing to them.”

Workers also experienced wage theft after the 2017 wildfires in California, Marquez said, citing instances where companies paid day laborers with debit cards that ended up being scams.

To help prevent these types of worker abuses at disaster cleanups, groups like the University of California, Berkeley’s Labor Occupational Health Program dispatch trainers to work centers to educate laborers about the hazards of wildfire cleanup, how to advocate for their rights, and how to use basic protective gear. At a time when employers are shirking their responsibilities, Martinez said, knowledge is power. “Our concern is that these workers have access to basic training.”

Jessica Kutz is an editorial fellow at High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. 

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