Thousands of Latino immigrants began arriving to New Orleans soon after Hurricane Katrina ripped through the city a decade ago. They were lured by promises of high wages and abundant work. But once they got there, they faced another reality. Many became victims of wage theft and still haven’t gotten paid for the work they did to help rebuild New Orleans.
So great was the demand for workers that the Bush administration temporarily suspended immigration regulations that required employers to verify the immigration status of people who worked for them. In doing so, it allowed federal contractors to hire undocumented workers to help meet the demand.
Santos Alvarado, an immigrant from Honduras, left Texas and headed to New Orleans toward the end of 2005. When he got there, he joined 2,000 people who worked cleaning hospitals, schools and government buildings. They all stayed in a hotel and worked 12-hour days. The contractor promised to pay them once they finished the job. Later Alvarado learned the contractor had left to Texas and had no intention of paying them. “He ended up owing us a total of $12,000 for the work that we did for about a month” said Alvarado.
In December 2005, after moving back to her home following Hurricane Katrina, Luz Molina, a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans formed the Workplace Justice Project to provide free legal assistance for low wage workers. She also helped form the Wage Claims Clinic in partnership with Catholic Charities and the Pro Bono Project.
The clinic provides workshops and teaches workers how to draft a letter to demand unpaid wages. Workers are also given the opportunity to meet with law students and staff attorneys to discuss the possibility of filing a lawsuit against an employer.
In the last few years, the clinic has filed claims on behalf of workers to try to recover more than $700,000 in stolen wages.
Molina said that to this day, she still runs into workers who are waiting to get paid for work they did after Hurricane Katrina. But also troubling, she said, are the stories of Latino immigrant workers who were injured on the job and didn’t get medical care or those who were harassed by employers when they demanded to get paid for their work.