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Houston Day Laborers Suffer Wage Theft in Post-Harvey Reconstruction

More than a quarter of Houston's day laborers were victims of wage theft within the first four weeks of Hurricane Harvey recovery.

(TNS) - In the weeks after Hurricane Harvey, day laborers had no problem finding work as contractors from across Houston and the country rushed in to help homeowners and businesses rebuild. For Cristobal, a Guatemalan immigrant who asked that his last name be withheld because he is undocumented, it was a chance to make steady money -- $150 a day to tear down and replace a warehouse roof in South Central Houston.

At first, Cristobal was paid every day, getting a wad of cash from the man who transported workers to the job site. But as the project neared completion, the paydays stopped coming until Cristobal was owed $1,350. He's still waiting to get paid and still trying to get the contractor to answer his phone.

"All I want is the money I was promised," he said.

Cristobal is not alone. More than a quarter of Houston's day laborers were victims of wage theft within the first four weeks of Hurricane Harvey recovery, according to a new report commissioned by the local Fe y Justicia Worker Center advocacy group and published by the University of Illinois at Chicago. Unpaid wages ranged from $212 to $2,700, according to the findings, based on a survey of 361 day laborers in Houston.

Wage theft is a common threat in the construction industry, especially in the mad dash for reconstruction work after a natural disaster, but researchers found that undocumented day laborers are particularly vulnerable. Undocumented workers are often the target of unscrupulous contractors, who hire untrained workers, cut corners on safety and steal wages, confident that the workers' fear of deportation will keep them silent.

Shortly after Harvey, workers like Cristobal were hired in droves across the city, according to Rodolfo Elizalde, day laborer and board member at Fe y Justicia. Within weeks, many started reporting that contractors were delaying payments. Some contractors stopped showing up to pay workers. Others would take the workers out to grab a complimentary drink at a gas station convenience store, stranding them there without money as they drove off.

Ervin, an undocumented electrician and general construction worker, said he worked two months helping to repair a nursing home in Sugarland. A week before the project was completed, the contractor stopped paying him. He's owed $920, but he fears that reporting the wage theft to police or a state agency would end in his arrest.

That's left him with barely enough to pay rent after sending money to the family he left behind in Guatemala.

The exploitation of undocumented workers is one of several issues facing the local construction industry as the Houston area rebuilds after Harvey's devastation, the Fe y Justicia study found. Typically, migrant workers -- typically immigrants and many of them undocumented -- flock to disaster zones to find work.

But few have come to the region to ease an acute labor shortage that is slowing the recovery, researchers found. Marianela Acuña Arreaza, executive director of the Fe y Justicia Worker Center, said that policies and laws aimed at increasing immigration enforcement in the United States and Texas, may have played a role in dissuading any influx of workers from participating in Harvey recovery.

She specifically noted Senate Bill 4, which allows police officers in Texas to question a detained person's immigration status. The law is being challenged in federal court.

"It's creating a chilling environment for workers," said Nik Theodore, the author of the report and a professor of urban planning and policy at the University of Illinois.

Supporters of SB 4, however, argue that the law is a public safety measure, aimed at protecting people from criminals here illegally.

Stan Marek, chief executive of the Houston construction firm Marek Bros., said labor shortages are bad for business. Well before Harvey barreled through the Gulf Coast, the construction industry faced a shortage of skilled workers. In August, the Associated General Contractors of America found that 70 percent of surveyed construction companies were having a hard time filling hourly craft positions.

Marek said he has had to turn down projects because he doesn't have enough workers. The lack of workers, he added, has also meant that jobs that used to take a day to complete can now take two to three weeks.

"One of the consequences of what's been happening on the immigration enforcement front," he said, "has been to exacerbate the labor shortage in the construction industry."

Marek has long proposed a program to grant temporary legal status to undocumented workers who have lived in the city for at least five years. That would allow more contractors to hire the workers, pay them on the books and protect the workers from wage theft, unsafe conditions and other unscrupulous practices.

In the meantime, groups like Fe y Justicia, have hosted their own training programs for immigrant workers and offer guidance for filing wage theft claims.


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