August 17, 2018 Kim Krisberg 0Comment

In a collaboration between the Dallas Morning News and Reveal, James Barragán reports on the “lawless jungle” of worker exploitation that happened in Texas in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. The investigation found that the state “failed to implement the most basic defenses against wage theft” after the hurricane, even though exploitation of disaster recovery workers is a well-documented occurrence.

While the state hasn’t been tracking cases of wage theft related to recovery efforts, Houston-based worker center Fe y Justicia has received more than 30 calls from workers reporting more than $109,000 in unpaid wages since February. Barragán’s article begins:

Just days after Hurricane Harvey released its grip on Texas a year ago, Guillermo Martinez Ayme was hard at work in the rebuilding effort.

He was one of more than 100 workers laboring from sunrise to sunset seven days a week, gutting a MainStay Suites hotel in Ingleside, 20 minutes north of Corpus Christi, that had been totaled by the storm. They worked 10- and 12-hour shifts in stifling summer heat, tearing down mold-infested walls, discarding storm debris and moving rotting furniture out of the four-story building.

But when payday came a few weeks later, several workers found their paychecks were short. Others had no checks at all.

“It wasn’t just me,” said Martinez Ayme, who said he is still owed about $900. “There were many of my fellow workers who were also ripped off.”

More than a dozen workers eventually complained they had not received payment for their work, while the construction companies in charge of the project blamed one another for the lack of payments. Nearly a year later, many of those workers say they still have not been paid.

Experts have known since at least Hurricane Katrina in 2005 that wage theft – as these unpaid wages are often known – increases dramatically after natural disasters. Employers looking to profit off rebuilding take on transient and vulnerable workers they can easily exploit.

And yet, Texas officials were unprepared.

Read the full story at Reveal.

In other news:

Houston Public Media: Travis Bubenik reports that a federal appeals court has ruled that an Obama-era chemical plant rule proposed after the deadly fertilizer explosion in West, Texas, must go into effect despite efforts of the Trump administration to delay the rule. The rule requires chemical companies disclose risks about their facilities and share that information with local first responders, among other measures. Not surprisingly, the American Chemistry Council had supported the Trump rollback; the appeals court, however, ruled the delay “arbitrary and capricious.” A spokesperson with Air Alliance Houston said of the court ruling: “In Houston, the people who live in the places with the most perils are mostly people of color and low incomes. They want their neighborhoods to be healthy and safe. This is a big win for them.”

Huffington Post: Dave Jamieson writes about Supreme Court justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s pattern of siding with corporations over workers, oftentimes as the lone dissenter. Among the cases highlighted is a 2014 dissent in a decision upholding an OSHA fine against SeaWorld. The agency had cited SeaWorld for safety gaps that led the death of an animal trainer. His fellow judges ruled that SeaWorld knew its worker protections weren’t adequate; however, Kavanaugh said OSHA didn’t have the authority to fine the company and “compared working at SeaWorld to playing a dangerous sport like ice hockey,” Jamieson wrote. The article quoted a statement from AFL-CIO: Kavanaugh “has a dangerous track record of putting big corporate interests ahead of working peoples’ rights and safety. He has put working people at risk by defending corporations with dangerous and unsafe working conditions.”

Vox: Alexia Fernández Campbell reports that the New York City Council has approved several bills to regulate gig economy for-hire vehicles, such as Lyft and Uber, including capping the number of drivers and establishing minimum rates. Among the justifications for the bills, which represent the most aggressive effort in the country to regulate ride-sharing, is that the services are clogging the city’s streets with thousands of additional cars and contributing to poverty-level wages among drivers. To put it in even more perspective, the article noted that if Uber actually recognized its drivers as employees, instead of as contractors, it would be the largest employer in New York City. Campbell writes: “The explosion of ride-hailing apps has been great for startups’ investors, but for the drivers, not so much. In New York City, the unrestricted growth has triggered serious financial strain on the city’s taxi drivers, and has even made it hard for Uber drivers to compete and earn a decent living.”

Texas Tribune: Emma Platoff reports that earlier this week, the San Antonio City Council passed a new paid sick leave ordinance, which would allow workers to accrue up to 64 hours of paid sick leave each year. San Antonio is the second Texas city to pass such a measure — the first was Austin. But whether the rule will actually go into effect is still a question, as state Republicans are fighting to strip localities of the ability to pass sick leave laws and a court is now considering whether Austin’s sick leave ordinance can move forward. San Antonio City Councilman Manny Palaez said: “It’s my formal, professional opinion that this is preempted by state law… The [Texas] Supreme Court is going to invalidate a San Antonio municipal paid sick leave ordinance. And if they don’t, the Legislature will do it for them. I believe this is dead on arrival in Austin.”

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