Even before the rains of Hurricane Harvey let up, Marianela Acuña Arreaza was mobilizing to protect the workers who would dig out and rebuild the city of Houston after catastrophe.
“Workers — especially day laborers, construction workers, domestic workers — are like our second responders,” said Arreaza, executive director of Houston’s Fe y Justicia Worker Center, which has so far hosted nearly 10 health and safety trainings for Harvey recovery workers. “The work that they do is so important in terms of getting our city back on its feet. We just need to commit to treating them well, not cheating them out of wages and protecting them in the work that they do.”
In the midst of Harvey, with the rain still falling, Arreaza began posting to Facebook, reaching out to workers about health and safety training that would be specific to the hazards of cleaning up after the historic floods. Texas is already home to some of the worst labor statistics in the country — it leads the nation in construction site fatalities — and it has some of the country’s most lax labor laws — the state doesn’t require most private employers carry workers’ compensation insurance. Arreaza knew that the rush to restore Houston and an influx of new contractors would likely bring a new rash of health, safety and wage violations for the largely immigrant workforce that would drive recovery and rebuilding efforts, just as happened after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.
In a 2006 study from Tulane University and the University of California-Berkeley, researchers surveyed more than 200 workers involved in rebuilding New Orleans after the storm. They found that almost half of the reconstruction workforce was Latino and 54 percent were undocumented. (After Katrina, federal immigration waivers allowed employers to hire undocumented workers.) Significant numbers of surveyed workers reported unsafe working conditions, with disparities related to immigration status.
Nearly 30 percent of post-Katrina workers said they were working with harmful substances, 27 percent reported dangerous working conditions and 19 percent said they weren’t given any protective equipment. Undocumented workers received protective equipment less often than their documented peers, and awareness of serious health risks such as mold and asbestos were significantly lower among undocumented workers. Construction workers, especially undocumented workers, frequently reported problems receiving the wages they’d earned. Expecting the same problems in post-Harvey Houston, Arreaza began reaching out to colleagues at the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH), of which Fe y Justicia is an affiliate.
Fortunately, National COSH had already begun building the capacity to help. Just a handful of years ago, the organization partnered with the International Chemical Workers Union in the wake of Superstorm Sandy to create a disaster recovery training curriculum for workers involved in cleaning up and rebuilding New Jersey and New York. The experience meant National COSH could help Fe y Justicia jump into action immediately after the floodwaters cleared.
“The big alarm for us was that we needed to move quickly to organize a training of trainers,” said Jessica Martinez, co-executive director of National COSH. “We’re not in Texas, we don’t have a national office there, but being able to offer local capacity was really important. Preparing the worker leaders already in Houston to do the training was essential.”
About a week-and-a-half after Harvey, National COSH had a trainer on the ground in Houston and was coordinating donations of personal protective equipment. That first training, held Sept. 13-15 at the Dominican Sisters of Houston Spirituality Center, welcomed about two-dozen people, most of them already worker leaders within Fe y Justicia and already experienced in peer-to-peer training. The goal, said Martinez, was to train them to bring critical health and safety information directly to workers — many of them day laborers — involved in the hazardous post-flood cleanup.
“It was fortunate that (the worker center) was so committed to taking action so quickly,” Martinez told me. “The credit goes to Fe y Justicia, which did all the outreach to actually get workers to the training.”
That initial three-day training, in English and Spanish, included “nitty-gritty” safety education such as information on mold and asbestos exposure and the kind of personal protective equipment needed in post-flood cleanup and how to properly use it, Martinez said. It also taught attendees how to relay information in a way that sticks — i.e., using teaching techniques known to resonate with adult learners — and tips for engaging and training workers in familiar settings, such as churches, community health centers and the street corners where many day laborers gather to find employment. On the last day of training, the worker leaders were divided into teams to practice what they’d learned, simulating real-life scenarios such as street-corner training.
“It was a very emotional training,” Martinez said. “The storm had just happened, it was so fresh. (The people we were training) had also lost so much.”
Arreaza added: “We’re facing a specific vulnerability because contractors are coming in from out town who don’t think they’re accountable to anything. There’s the rush of doing the work fast, lots of overtime and lots of workers coming in from out of town who don’t have a support network here in Houston. Then there’s the immigration climate with SB4 that makes people feel less safe in talking about problems at work. It was and is a very heavy time.”
Since September, Fe y Justicia has hosted nearly 10 disaster training classes for workers and hopes to continue into the foreseeable future. The worker center is focused on offering three kinds of trainings post-Harvey: a disaster-related health and safety class; one specific to mold exposure and protection; and a general health and safety class not specific to disaster recovery. Arreaza said the post-disaster trainings don’t currently cover wage and hour violations, though workers are educated on their OSHA rights and how to exercise those rights.
Most of the trainings are bringing information directly to workers, as opposed to being train-the-trainer classes like the initial one organized in early September. However, in October, Fe y Justicia partnered with Austin-based Workers Defense Project and United Steelworkers (USW) to host another train-the-trainer class, which helped expand its network of worker teachers to nearly 30. Beyond workplace hazards, Fe y Justicia and USW also hosted a resiliency training for workers and community members.
“There are people who have a double recovery to deal with,” Arreaza told me, referring to workers who have to rebuild their own homes and lives even as they help others do the same. “But even if you didn’t lose everything, the work of cleaning up and rebuilding is mentally draining. There’s so much damage and devastation that you’re reminded of eight hours a day. It’s really intense.”
Since Harvey, Fe y Justicia and its partners have handed out hundreds of workplace health and safety booklets as well as earplugs, bottles of water, wage-and-hour calendars, snacks and N95 respirators. Arreaza noted that providing workers with personal protective equipment has been a critical, yet tricky, part of the process. For example, the equipment can be more harmful than helpful if workers don’t get proper instruction. Plus, Arreaza said they don’t want contractors to get the idea that they’re not responsible for providing such worker protections. “It’s a balance,” she said.
Martinez said National COSH hopes to offer the disaster training to workers in need nationwide, though much of its success depends on existing local capacity to reach vulnerable workers. In Houston, that ongoing success speaks to the critical role of Fe y Justicia in the lives of Houston’s “second responders.”
“We’ll continue to depend on workers to help us build and rebuild this city over and over again” Arreaza said, “and so we must see them as full human beings who deserve fairness and protection in their work.”