Disaster recovery work

Definition: Large-scale relief efforts to repair damage left by fires, floods, hurricanes, and other natural disasters

Significance: Disaster recovery work in the United States has become an occupation heavily populated with both documented and undocumented immigrant laborers, the latter of whom are usually paid significantly less than documented workers. During the early twenty-first century, many immigrant disaster recovery workers were victims of exploitation and in some situations were exposed to harmful toxins from which they contracted unnecessary chronic illnesses.

As a labor-intensive industry, disaster recovery work demands hard physical labor to performtasks ranging fromheavy lifting, brickwork, and pipe laying to sewage cleanup and refuse clearance. Although these jobs are physically taxing, many of them require little training and consequently are given to unskilled workers. Hours of disaster-relief workers tend to be long, with shifts averaging from twelve to fourteen hours at a stretch. Since the inception of the bracero program for Mexican farmworkers during the early 1940’s, disaster-relief jobs have often been filled by Mexican and other Latino laborers who have stayed on in the United States after completing their bracero contracts.

Many of these immigrant workers have suffered exploitation in the form of wage theft and poor working conditions. This is partly because it is difficult to maintain in disaster areas the kinds of workplace standards mandated by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Moreover, immigrant workers are often hesitant to report cases of exploitation for fear of being deported. Language barriers also pose obstacles to many of those suffering mistreatment.

The exploitation of immigrants working in disaster relief has been widespread over a very long period. However, it has only been since the late twentieth century that it has become a well-documented phenomenon, thanks to worker rights organizations working to empower, protect, and assist immigrant workers. Two of the biggest disasters of the twenty-first century provide useful case studies.

September 11, 2001, Terrorist Attacks

The terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and New York City’s World Trade Center of September 11, 2001, had a great impact on immigrant families living near the affected areas. In New York City, the smoke-filled air that clung for months after the World Trade Center towers collapsed contributed to debilitating, long-term lung problems among disaster relief workers and members of immigrant communities living in the lower East Side of Manhattan. Health services have been provided to New York City police and fire department personnel who developed symptoms of 9/11-related lung problems. However, no special health services were provided for immigrant workers who contracted illnesses while working at Ground Zero.

Numerous class-action lawsuits have been filed on behalf of more than eight thousand workers who developed lung problems from inhaling air with high levels of lead, asbestos, benzene, and mercury. Filed against both the firms that employed the workers and the city itself, which claimed that the air was safe, these lawsuits ask for damages for three levels of injuries.

  • Level 1: chronic coughing, apparently caused by prolonged exposure to macerated cement in the air surrounding Ground Zero 
  • Level 2: scarring of lung tissue and chronic respiratory illness 
  • Level 3: cancer. 

Toxins in the air around the collapsed buildings have been shown to cause blood cancer, lymphatic cancer. and multiple myeloma. Those seeking damages in the class-action suit face thousands of dollars of debt in unpaid hospital bills and doctors’ fees.

Although anti-immigrant sentiments throughout America were higher during the period directly following 9/11, many immigrants responded as relief workers, often as unpaid volunteers, to assist in the clean-up efforts. Undocumented Latino workers, as well as undocumented workers from Poland, Russia, and China assisted in the dangerous cleanup effort at Ground Zero. Many were given only paper masks, and some women—used because of their generally smaller physical sizes— cleaned air ducts with virtually no protective gear. Many undocumented workers who assisted in the relief work have been wary of coming forward to claim damages in the class-action lawsuit, assuming that they have no right to access the funds. They have continued to suffer fromdebilitating illnesses in silence. Many cannot afford their health care treatments, and attorney fees are even more difficult to arrange for many.

Immigrant workers from El Salvador, Mexico, Nicaragua, Honduras, and other Latin American countries made up most of the labor force that rebuilt the Pentagon building after the September 11 attack. Many of these workers were in the country on temporary visas and worked for American contracting businesses in the Arlington, Virginia, area. Some of these immigrants did potentially harmful work in asbestos removal, and some complained of incidents of wage theft.

New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina

When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf coast region in 2005, flooding brought noxious sediment from the canal breaches and deposited toxins throughout the city of New Orleans, displacing thousands of residents from their homes and jobs. When migrant workers arrived looking for work, they found numerous jobs in refuse removal. Much of this work was done in dangerous waste zones, involving hazardous tasks such as pressure-washing black mold and removing canal sediment that contained high levels of arsenic. These jobs required protective gear that some workers complained they were not given. In addition, undocumented workers claimed to receive significantly less money for the same jobs done by documented workers, while some claimed they were paid nothing at all.

Shannon Oxley

Further Reading

  • Bradford, Marlene, and Robert S. Carmichael, eds. Natural Disasters. 3 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2000. Comprehensive reference work covers natural disasters of all types throughout world history. The set is organized by types of disasters, with overview essays and case studies of individual disasters. 
  • Brinkley, Douglas. The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. New York: William Morrow, 2006. Useful guide to understanding the immense problems faced by New Orleans and other Gulf coast communities during and after Hurricane Katrina. 
  • Bullard, Robert D., and Beverley Wright. Race, Place, and Environmental Justice After Hurricane Katrina. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2009. Revealing look at the roles of different ethnic communities in the rebuilding of the Gulf coast after Hurricane Katrina struck. 
  • Pielke, R. A., Jr., and R. A. Pielke, Sr. Hurricanes: Their Nature and Impacts on Society. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1997. Informative and wellwritten book by father and son meteorologists. Focuses on the United States, integrating science and social policies in response to these storms. 
  • Rosner, David, and Gerald Markowitz. Deadly Dust: Silicosis and the On-Going Struggle to Protect Workers’ Health. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006. Provides a description of the industrial lung problems similar to those faced by recovery workers after 9/11. 

See also: Health care; Homeland Security, Department of; Mexican immigrants; Natural disasters as push-pull factors; Push-pull factors; Remittances of earnings.

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