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Migrant workers who clean up climate disasters for work often pay a price

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Mariano Alvarado is a modern-day storm chaser of sorts, but it's not a hobby. It pays his bills. Alvarado was a fisherman in Honduras. Then droughts tied to climate change hit his industry.

MARIANO ALVARADO: (Through interpreter) We decided to come here to this country because of the poverty at home. It's sad, but you have to figure out how to support your family. With the economy here, you actually can.

CORNISH: From climate disasters at home ruining his livelihood to climate disasters here being the source of it, Alvarado is now one of a growing number of primarily migrant workers who follow such catastrophes around the U.S. and aid in the cleanup and rebuilding. They make a living off dredging up toxic sludge and clearing incinerated buildings and more. The industry is booming as disasters become more frequent, but the work is dangerous.

ALVARADO: (Through interpreter) I slipped off the roof of a house and fell on the driveway on the cement. The company didn't take any responsibility. They just took me to the hospital. I was in a coma, and the doctors didn't know who I was.

CORNISH: Sarah Stillman spent the last year following people like Alvarado around for her latest piece in The New Yorker, and she found that many disaster recovery workers have little protection.

SARAH STILLMAN: So many of these workers are undocumented or may have precarious immigration status. And in Mariano's case, he did not have health care. This was after Hurricane Michael in Florida. He had gone to do repairing on a roof, and when he experienced that fall, he was pushed to work in the midst of a rainstorm. He had no safety harness. He felt it wasn't safe, and indeed, he then fell those, you know, 15 feet and really cracked his head open.

And in Mariano's case, you know, there was a huge medical bill, and he, like so many others who aren't insured, was really left on his own to reckon with that. He didn't get workers' comp. This never got reported to any federal agency. And I saw that that was really pervasive throughout the industry, especially because oftentimes employers are able to use workers' immigration status against them to say, you know, sure, I may owe you these wages. But I'm not going to pay you, and I'm going to call ICE on you if you complain.

CORNISH: Wait a second. So people are recruited, right? And then once they're recruited, their immigration status is held against them.

STILLMAN: Absolutely. So that was something I heard over and over again. Oftentimes an individual employer, like a homeowner or a corporate entity, like a labor broker or a subcontractor, will directly threaten workers that, you know, they'll go ahead and try to get them deported if they press for the wages that they're owed for doing this really hard and dangerous work.

CORNISH: And the roots of U.S. disaster recovery - the very, like, early history seem to be in exploitation. Can you give an example?

STILLMAN: Yes. I mean, really, for most of U.S. history, the work of disaster rebuilding has been exploitative. I mean, we saw the single most lethal storm in U.S. history hit Galveston, Texas. That was in 1900. And what you saw was that Black workers were basically forced at gunpoint to gather up the detritus of the storm and also to gather dead bodies.

And we saw something very similar in 1928 after a big hurricane hit southern Florida that - first of all, it killed mostly Black migrant agricultural workers. And then those workers who survived were actually conscripted to do the burials of their peers in mass graves, and some of them were shot and killed when they refused. So really, the very origins of this work have come out of exploitation. It's just the structure of the industry that has changed and the massive profits that are there to be made today.

CORNISH: Can you talk about the players in the industry that have grown up to play a role here?

STILLMAN: Absolutely. So, you know, a lot of these began as mom and pop shops, you know, for most of the last century. You know, if you had a kitchen fire or a small storm, they would rebuild in the neighborhood. And what we've seen in the last several decades is that these local companies have started chasing disasters all around the country and consolidating and, in fact, getting bought up by private equity. So now what you see is a lot of, you know, multibillion-dollar corporations that - you know, the people at the top are making a ton of money off of climate change and then the people at the bottom of that chain doing the actual work. Many times they're the ones making very little money, doing very dangerous work, subject to wage theft and all other kinds of abuses.

CORNISH: What is the legal recourse for workers in this situation, especially perhaps if they're undocumented?

STILLMAN: One of the things that I think is really difficult for the workers is that the complex subcontracting process makes it very hard to get accountability. So so many workers I spoke to who experienced wage theft, just absolute theft of the the wages for the work that they had done - they really struggled to get recourse because, you know, the companies at the top could say they're not responsible, and then the subcontractor could say it's the labor brokers' fault.

And so this group, called Resilience Force, has taken some of these companies to court. And they've been suing in individual cases but also trying to organize on Capitol Hill and thinking that if these workers had a pathway to citizenship and other basic rights given to them through legislation, that that would make a huge difference in their power to come forward.

Another thing that some of the groups pointed out would make a huge difference is that, you know, President Biden could in fact issue an executive order that would offer protections to whistleblowers in this workforce. So they wouldn't have to worry about being deported if they came forward to report unsafe working conditions at a hurricane repair site or to report wage theft or any of the multitude of abuses that happen at these sites.

CORNISH: Mariano still lives with the symptoms from his accident, right? He's lost some of his vision, constant headaches - symptoms that his doctors say he could have for the rest of his life. And yet when asked about whether he'd keep doing this kind of work - right? - post-disaster recovery, he said this.

ALVARADO: (Through interpreter) We have to keep moving forward even with all of those problems because I have my family. I have my kids. So I have to fight my pain. The work is a little tough, but I feel happy when I finish cleaning a house and see people's happy faces when they come home again.

CORNISH: Can you talk about this aspect of it, why people are drawn to this particular area of work - right? - because there's other kinds of construction, day labor and other kinds of work to be done. Why does this keep drawing people?

STILLMAN: I think it's a number of things. I mean, a lot of the workers I spoke to did take a profound pride in their work. They did feel like they recognized that they're doing something that helps communities be able to return to functionality in the midst of profound need. And then the other obvious reason is money. I mean, so many of the people that I spoke to - they lost their jobs during the pandemic. They recognized that this was a way to be able to make overtime wages.

You know, people like Mariano - you know, one thing that comes to mind in his case is that the person who was working alongside him, a man named Gustavo (ph) - he was up on that roof because his daughter was a child who was trying to reunite with him, had just crossed the border and been kidnapped right at the border. And so he - Gustavo had actually been threatened needing a ransom payment by a cartel. And so he was up on that roof to pay the ransom payment. So all kinds of life circumstances that are pretty difficult often drive people to be willing to take the risk.

CORNISH: Sarah Stillman is a staff writer at The New Yorker and professor of investigative journalism at Yale. Thank you for being with us.

STILLMAN: Thanks so much for having me on.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRENNAN VILLINES SONG, "AUTUMN LEAVES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.