Harvey recovery brings employment opportunities for immigrants

As day labor needs increase in Houston to clean out flooded homes after hurricane Harvey, immigrants find they can charge top dollar but the work still exposes them to dangerous conditions. 

Elliot Spagat/AP
Alain Cisneros, a community organizer for the advocacy group Immigrant Families and Students in the Struggle, counsels a Mexican woman whose parents brought her to the US illegally when she was a year old at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston.

As a parade of motorists rolled down their windows on the edges of a Houston Home Depot parking lot offering cash, the crowd of day laborers had slowly thinned to about a dozen by mid-morning.

The workers who were already gone were off to tear out soggy carpeting, carry ruined sofas to the curb, and saw apart mold-infested drywall. Those who still remained knew they were hot commodities and weren't going to settle for low offers.

The owner of a car dealership shook his head and drove off after his $10-an-hour proposal to clean flooded vehicles drew no takers. A pickup driver who promised $50 for two hours to rip out wet carpeting and move furniture was told the job was too short to be worthwhile.

Day laborers – many of them immigrants and many of them in the country illegally – will continue to be in high demand as workers who clear debris make way for plumbers, electricians, drywall installers, and carpenters. Employers are generally small, unregulated contractors or individual homeowners, resulting in a lack of oversight that creates potential for workers to be unpaid or work in dangerous conditions.

Houston's day laborers are generally settling for $120 to $150 to clear homes of Harvey's debris for eight hours. As noon struck Friday, three workers took a job for $100 for up to five hours rather than let the whole day slip. It didn't hurt that the contractor provided tools, distributed bottles of cold water, and dangled the prospect of more steady work clearing other houses.

"Now we'll be busy for the rest of the year," said the contractor, Nicolas Garcia, a naturalized US citizen from Mexico who has had his own business for 15 years. "Now that this disaster happened, we have to step it up."

Mr. Garcia is working about 20 miles southeast of downtown Houston in the Southbelt/Ellington area, a middle-class residential neighborhood whose main streets are lined with fast-food restaurants, strip malls and churches. Waters reached 5 feet in some streets on Aug. 27, forcing families with young children to escape on neighbors' boats and inflatable swimming pool toys.

The contractor led a caravan of workers to a four-bedroom house that was in better shape than others. Sharon Eldridge, a renter who lives alone, landed in about a foot of water when she stepped out of bed Sunday. Her furniture and clothes were ruined, but she didn't have to evacuate.

Armando Rivera, a Honduran who is living in the country illegally and raising four children with his wife, said it was painful to see so many people die and lose their home, but the storm would jolt the local construction economy.

"When there is work, you can live a good life," he said as he took a break from knifing Ms. Eldridge's water-logged beige carpeting into pieces small enough to carry outside.

Construction workers were scarce even before Harvey struck. The Associated General Contractors of America, a trade group, said Tuesday that a survey of 1,608 members showed 58 percent struggled to fill carpentry jobs and 53 percent were having trouble finding electricians and bricklayers. Texas' shortages were more acute.

Nationwide unemployment in construction was 4.7 percent in August, down from 5.1 percent a year earlier. Ken Simonson, chief economist for the contractor trade group, said the latest indicator was the lowest for any August since the government began keeping track in 2000.

"From what I'm reading, we've never seen so many homes either destroyed or at least rendered uninhabitable at once," Mr. Simonson said. "I doubt there is enough labor with the skills."

A sharp increase in immigration arrests under President Trump may further limit the labor pool. The Houston office of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement has made about 10,000 arrests this year, second-highest in the country after Dallas. The region has about 600,000 immigrants in the country illegally, third-largest behind New York and Los Angeles.

Laborers who gathered at Home Depot stores for Harvey work – some on their fourth or fifth major storm – swapped stories about exploitation that either they or someone they knew had suffered. Jose Pineda, a Nicaraguan who entered the country illegally in 2005 through the Arizona desert, said he had injured his arm with a saw and was shorted $380 but decided not to complain. Arturo Garcia, a legal resident from Mexico, knows three people who got hernias on the job and had to pay for surgery out of pocket because they were uninsured.

Storm recoveries pose heightened danger. A 2009 study by researchers at University of California, Los Angeles, and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network found that day laborers working on storm recovery during hurricane Katrina were commonly exposed to mold, worked on roofs without safeguards against falling, and were exposed to chemicals and asbestos.

Mr. Pineda joined three other laborers at a three-bedroom house with soaked red carpet, moldy leather chairs, a television, and other furniture strewn about as if a tornado hit. The owner balked in the Home Deport parking lot when workers asked for $120 each to clear the house and bargained them down to $100.

When Pineda saw the home and experienced its overwhelming stench, he realized it would take much longer than the owner promised and insisted on $150. The workers left when the owner refused.

"They didn't realize that everything in the house was ruined," said the owner, who identified himself only by his first name, Guy. "We just don't have the money to pay them."

This story was reported by Associated Press. 

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