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Maria Hinojosa: This is Latino USA, the radio journal of news and cultura. It’s Latino USA. It’s Latino USA. Welcome to Latino USA. I’m Maria Hinojosa. We bring you stories that are underreported, but that matter to you. Overlooked by the rest of the media. And while the country is struggling to deal with these problems. We listen to the stories of black and Latino students.

A united Latino front. A cultural renaissance. Organizing at the forefront of the movement. I’m Maria Hinojosa. ¡No se vayan! (MUSIC.)

When powerful hurricanes, wildfires, or floods destroy communities across the United States, scores of workers emerge from around the country, ready to clean and rebuild. And, dear listener, you might not know this, but it is in fact Latino immigrants who are the ones more than likely to perform the hardest cleaning tasks after natural disasters. In the process, though, they’re also unknowingly exposed to harmful toxins, toxins that can make them sick years after finishing the job. 

Mariano: “La noche me pegaba como una tos pero seca y sentía como que me faltaba la respiración.” 

Maria Hinojosa: That’s Mariano, an undocumented immigrant from Honduras. He said his dry throat hurts and he’s always coughing, sometimes to the point of triggering an asthma attack. Mariano is 50 years old. We’re not going to reveal his last name in order to protect his identity. He was repeatedly exposed to mold, when he cleared debris from nine hurricanes in Louisiana and Florida, and, dear listener, mold can contribute to pulmonary disease and also to asthma.

Still, Mariano says, the labor contractors hiring him over the years, did not provide something as basic as a proper mask or any other kind of protection or training, that could have minimized exposure. Mariano was exposed to three of the most common toxins in post disaster work sites: asbestos, lead, and mold.

While lead and asbestos are regulated by the federal government, those standards are generally not enforced in the wake of a disaster. And mold, which is ubiquitous after hurricanes, is not regulated at all. 

Mariano: “Nosotros trabajamos, como decimos nosotros popularmente, a la buena de Dios.”. 

Maria Hinojosa: Mariano said his only resource was to put himself in God’s hands.

And while the industry Mariano joined almost 20 years ago, keeps expanding. No one is tracking how exposure from disaster to disaster impacts workers’ health. At least not until now. 

From Futuro Media and PRX, it’s Latino USA. I’m Maria Hinojosa. Today, “Toxic labor,” a first of its kind investigation into how prolonged exposure to toxins, affects the health of workers who rebuild American cities after natural disasters.

This is a special episode by our own Futuro Investigates in collaboration with the Center for Public Integrity and Columbia Journalism Investigations. 

We’ll tell you why immigrant workers manning reconstruction sites are left to fend for themselves. While their labor fuels a booming and loosely regulated industry that neglects them.

We’re going to start today in New Orleans, homebase to many restoration workers since Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city in 2005. Our investigation was kicked off over a year ago, by a team of fellows from Columbia Journalism Investigations. They were focusing on climate change. Then, investigative reporter María Inés Zamudio, with the Center for Public Integrity, joined the effort, and the entire team traveled to Fort Myers, Florida and New Orleans last year.

Now, María Inés is with me in the studio to talk about this reporting. Hola, Maria Inés. 

María Inés: Hi, Maria! 

Maria Hinojosa: So your team traveled to these places that have been pretty much devastated by hurricanes. And what you find is in many ways, frankly, what I saw myself almost 20 years ago, when I went to New Orleans as a television correspondent for PBS after Hurricane Katrina.

Archival News: “My house is underwater, I have me, my husband, the three-year-old and a newborn, so we’re stuck.” 

“We ain’t got nowhere to go, nowhere to go, I’m, I’m lost, that’s all I had, that’s all I had.” 

María Inés: So we wanted to see if and how workers doing the hardest job cleaning up after major destruction, have access to training and protective equipment that could limit their exposure to toxins that could make them sick.

Maria, these workers are still neglected. We learned that when we went to New Orleans.

Worker: “Hey, me maté”. “Uno…” 

It’s a sunny spring day in March and a few men are playing dice in the parking lot of a home improvement store. It’s only 11 a.m. but the men still here, they would likely not find work today. That’s because employers usually pick up laborers by sunrise for a full day’s work. I’m here with a colleague to interview workers and document toxin exposure over time.

We want to ask them about their access to training and protective equipment, because those safety measures can lessen their risk.

(MUSIC)

Not far from the men playing dice, I meet Roberto, a 47-year-old immigrant from Honduras. He has piercing black eyes hidden behind a baseball cap. His muscles are outlined in the long sleeved shirt he’s wearing on this hot day, to protect himself from the sun. Unlike other workers around him hesitant to talk with me, Roberto proudly tells me how he helped rebuild New Orleans after Katrina in 2005. He was exposed to asbestos multiple times while demolishing structures.

Roberto: “Nosotros mirábamos personas blancas de aquí, de americanas, que a veces ponían una cortina, un zipper y andaban trajes…” 

María Inés: While cleaning up after Katrina, Roberto says his boss ordered him to bag debris filled with asbestos without protection. He told me he suspected it was dangerous when he saw American workers and Katrina volunteers wearing white hazmat suits and masks to do the same job. As an undocumented immigrant, he said he felt he couldn’t demand protective equipment to limit toxin exposure.

Dozens of workers told me the same.

Maria Hinojosa: After major disasters, newly arrived immigrants like Roberto are lured by the promise of a job that pays over minimum wage and also offers perks like overtime pay and transportation. And because of climate change, this industry is actually booming. It moves 150 billion dollars every single year. Just in the last four years, there have been at least 81 major storms, floods, and wildfires across the U.S. These have cost nearly a thousand deaths and left at least 500 billion dollars in damages. 

News Anchor: “Weather forecasters say that Hurricane Laura, which has made land in Texas and Louisiana from the Gulf of Mexico, could cause a storm surge.” 

News Anchor 2: “Hurricane Ida making landfall in southeast Louisiana as a powerful category 4 storm.”

“Treacherous night ahead for Florida as darkness begins to fall, and Hurricane Ian continues its catastrophic rampage.” 

Maria Hinojosa: While restoration efforts from these disasters employ more and more Latino immigrants to clean and rebuild, there is no federal or state data available that tracks, how many of these workers get sick and there’s no government agency or advocacy organization that has studied how prolonged exposure to toxins from cleaning disaster, after disaster could impact a worker’s health.

María Inés: So the team from Columbia Journalism Investigations and I spent months reporting on this unprotected workforce, interviewing dozens of workers and digging through hundreds of pages of documents. Since there was no data, we had to build our own, to understand the scope of the problem. We methodically documented workers’ experiences. Maria, their stories were difficult to hear. 

Maria Hinojosa: And you know, tocaya, I know exactly what you mean, because back in 2005, when Katrina happened, I reported on the huge immigrant labor force that was suddenly brought into New Orleans. And it was a similar story of these workers not being protected, I mean, I remember vividly seeing scores of Latino men cleaning up the debris, and not once in all of the time that I was reporting in New Orleans did I see any of them wearing any kind of protective gear.

And I specifically remember talking to one worker from Nicaragua. He took me to where he was staying at the end of a very long workday and he showed me this really beat up Bible where he kept his most prized possession, which were the photos of his kids. And I remember him looking at this and crying and describing how looking at these pictures allowed him to get through what he described as “hell on earth.” (MUSIC) 

María Inés: He sounds like Mariano, the worker we heard at the top of the show. When I asked him if he received training or had access to protective equipment that could have helped minimize exposure to dangerous toxins, he said a prayer was his only protection. The reality, Maria, is that these workers are just as vulnerable now, as they were almost 20 years ago, when you first reported on the issue. 

Maria Hinojosa: Which is not the way it’s supposed to go. When journalists, investigative journalists, uncover a problem, a labor abuse, it’s supposed to get better. So the fact that after 20 years, we’re basically telling the same story is incredibly problematic. And when we come back, we’re going to hear from Mariano again, he’s going to tell us how cleaning hurricane, after hurricane has taken a toll on his body. Stay with us. ¡No te vayas! 

(MUSIC) 

Hey! We’re back, dear listener, and we’re taking a closer look at how workers’ health is impacted from toxin exposure during natural disaster cleanup.

Maria Hinojosa: In the comfort of his home now, Mariano, the immigrant that we heard from earlier, shared in detail his experiences working in this cleanup industry for almost 20 years. And you were there with him, María Inés. 

María Inés: Yes, Maria. We arrived at Mariano’s home on a Thursday evening in March of 2023. It’s a single story house about five miles from downtown New Orleans.

Similar structures are squeezed in together, lined along the block, with a small patch of grass by the front door.

“Hola”

Mariano: “¿Cómo estás?”

María Inés: “Bien, bien” 

Mariano: “Bienvenida.” 

María Inés: “Gracias.”

We walk in through the small living room with a black couch, yellow pillows, and a multicolored lamp. The word “home” is spelled on the wall. The O is replaced with a green wreath. 

Mariano: “¿Quieren agua, algo, una soda?” 

María Inés: Mariano offers us something to drink as we sit around the small kitchen table next to the refrigerator. At just five feet, he stands strong.

He moves his large hands when he speaks to emphasize something important. He wears his black hair in a tapered buzz cut, revealing a scar in the back of his head. It’s an unwanted souvenir from a fall off a roof while he was working after Hurricane Michael in 2018. The contractor that hired him didn’t give him a safety harness.

When I ask Mariano how many hurricanes he’s helped clean, he gives me a long list. 

“Y los trabajó todos como por ejemplo el de Sandy” 

Mariano:“Sí.” 

María Inés:“Okey. ¿El de Matthew?” 

Mariano:“Sí.” 

María Inés: “¿El de Harvey?” 

Mariano: “Harvey.” 

María Inés: “¿Irma?” 

Mariano: “Irma.” 

María Inés: “Eh, ¿Florence?” 

Mariano: “Florence, también” (LAUGHS) 

María Inés: “¡Híjole!” 

Mariano invites his older brother, Santos, to join our conversation.

Mariano: “Bueno, incluso nosotros tenemos con mi hermano, el que va a venir ahorita…” 

María Inés: The brothers worked together for most of the time. Santos checks the long list, too. 

Santos: “He trabajado casi todos los desastres que han habido después. 

Ese fue el último cuando estuve en Dallas y ahí me vine para Katrina, para acá. Y cuando…” 

María Inés: He’s cleared the breeze from 10 hurricanes. Santos is a 60-year-old father of six. He’s a few inches taller than his brother. Today, he wears a baseball cap that covers his grain hair. He’s an avid soccer player with a round belly.

(MUSIC)

The brothers had been living in Dallas when they decided to seek work after Katrina. They arrived in New Orleans in a Greyhound bus with just a backpack and a sleeping bag they used to keep warm while sleeping in a city park. A week after arriving, they were hired and housed at a downtown hotel. 

There was plenty of work. Hurricane Katrina damaged an estimated 134,000 homes in New Orleans alone. Santos still remembers the stench, a rancid mixture of mold and dead bodies. He even made up his own word in Spanish to describe it. 

Santos: “Aquel mal olor, no es que era mal olor, era apestosidad, apesataba.” 

María Inés: Apestosidad. Stinkiness. The stench forced him to throw away his donated clothes every day.

He remembers the unsettling destruction, and long hours of grueling work, and limited access to food. He said the labor contractors that hired him and his brother did not teach them how to properly protect themselves from repeatedly being exposed to asbestos, lead, and mold. Again, among the most common kinds of toxins found in post disaster sites.

Government research shows that exposure to even small doses of asbestos can cause mesothelioma, a type of lung cancer. And chronic exposure to lead can cause reproductive issues, kidney problems, and seizures, while mold can contribute to pulmonary disease and asthma. And so we needed to verify the exposure.

We asked Santos and Mariano to share information regarding places they’ve worked and medical records. 

Santos: “Este es el lugar, mire, aquí le estoy tomando, le estoy tomando este video. Y allá al fondo parece que se ven planchas de… todo esto aquí.” 

María Inés: It took me months of calls and voice messages before I could truly understand the dire conditions the brothers faced.

Santos: “Mira, María Inés, a esto es a lo que me refiero yo, mira…”

María Inés: One day, Santos sent me a video of an abandoned house in New Orleans he was about to demolish, to show me the growing mold. 

Santos: “Míralo bien, pero ahora nosotros ya…” 

María Inés: The video was just under two minutes. I repeatedly paused it to process what I was watching. I could see the growing mold all over the walls. It made me concerned for the brothers.

I remember meeting Santos in person and immediately noticing his breathing problems. He has constant asthma attacks. 

Santos: “Los tengo casi todas las noches en la casa, siento como, como, como un ruidillo (coughs) en la noche y sin estar tosiendo y sin nada.” 

He has adopted a nightly ritual of dabbing VapoRub under his nose to help soothe the cough. Twenty minutes into our conversation when we were talking about access to healthcare, he told me he only has access to a community clinic staffed by volunteers. We were forced to take a break after he started coughing.

(Coughing.) 

María Inés: “¿Quiere tomar un break?” 

Santos: “Sí (clears throat.)”

María Inés: “¿Quiere agua?”

Santos: “Aja.”

María Inés: “Aquí hay agua, ¿quieres agua?” No sé dónde la podría encontrar, ¿en el refri tal vez?” 

Mariano: “En el refri.”

María Inés: “¿Me da permiso?” 

Maria Hinojosa: Again, dear listener, there is no federal or state data to show how many disaster restoration workers get sick every year. But Maria Inés and her team were able to document for the first time that the brothers’ symptoms after prolonged exposure to toxins were not unique. Right, Maria Inés? 

María Inés: Yes, and we did that with the help of a unique questionnaire our team created.

It was with the guidance from Occupational Health and Safety specialists, environmental researchers, and other academic experts. We wanted to quantify exposure over time and symptoms associated with asbestos, lead and mold.”De su conocimiento. ¿Alguna vez he estado expuesto en el trabajo de las siguientes toxinas? ¿Hongos? amianto, que es asbesto, o tuberías de plomo” 

Johan: “Tuberías de plomo en una oportunidad.”

Oscar: “Sí.” 

María Inés: “Okay.”

“Sí, había varios que tenían moho en el piso o en la mera pared.” 

Jenny: “Estaba muy feo ese apartamento lleno de, de moho, de hongo.” 

Maria Hinojosa: That was Maria Inés in the middle of an interview with workers asking them whether they’d been exposed to toxins. And each of them answering: “Yes.” And yes, you also heard a female voice there, because there are women who are doing this hard work too. They’re not as many as men, but they are definitely part of this growing labor force.

So this is the first time that workers’ prolonged toxin exposure and associated health symptoms are being documented in this way. María Inés, let’s share with our listeners the findings that you came up with. 

María Inés: Maria, we interviewed 100 Latino disaster restoration workers in Florida, Louisiana, and Texas. We asked him about toxin exposure, access to personal protective equipment, and training. “Usted diría que estuvo en, en un espacio trabajando que estaba cubierto de moho, ¿menos de un metro cuadrado o más de un metro cuadrado?” 

Worker: “No, más de un metro cuadrado.” 

María Inés: Let me give you a detailed breakdown, Maria. Seventy-two workers reported being exposed to mold. Fifty-two said they were exposed to asbestos and 48 told us they were exposed to lead. Most workers experience health symptoms toxicologists say can be linked to those toxins including skin and eye irritations, respiratory problems, headaches, and others develop chronic illnesses like asthma and vision loss. 

“Como hongos y evitar inhalación.” 

Worker: “No.” 

“¿Capacitación para evitar toxinas como tuberías de plomo…” 

Maria Hinojosa: So, with these numbers, you actually now have some hard data that’s documenting this reality that we’ve been reporting on for decades now. 

María Inés: That’s right, Maria, in the case of Santos and Mariano, nearly 20 years of chasing work after hurricanes is taking a toll on their bodies.

The brothers not only have ongoing breathing problems, they also have been hospitalized following work accidents. One such accident left Santos temporarily blind, while another left Mariano in a coma for multiple days after he fell off a roof in Panama City, Florida. 

But still. It’s probably the respiratory issues that indicate the most enduring health effects.

When working after Katrina, Santos lived with hundreds of workers housed in rows of triple bunkbeds. In close proximity, he noticed a striking cough trend. 

Santos: “Y a esa hora, escuchaba usted como que era, como que era una orquesta (cough sound.)” 

María Inés: Santos recalls workers lining up to shower as early as 2:00 AM and hearing coughing in unison. He described it as, quote an orchestra of roosters and chickens.

Santos: “No es una cuando uno tose normal, no, quedaba como un ruido, (Sound) algo así.”

Maria Hinojosa: You know, María Inés, years later, researchers did come up with a different name for it. In fact, they called it “Katrina cough,” referring to bouts of sinusitis and inflamed lungs. And it’s all documented in a study of almost 800 New Orleans area workers surveyed between 2007 and 2010. This by researchers from Tulane’ schools of Medicine and Public Health and Tropical Medicine.

So, dear listener, you might be saying, isn’t there a federal agency responsible for making sure that workers are protected? And well, the answer is yes. It’s the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, that is supposed to do just that. 

Now, after Katrina, the costliest storm in U.S. History, OSHA used a new approach for monitoring post disaster worksites.

It was first created as an emergency response to the cleanup efforts from the 9/11 attacks, and it meant suspending enforcement of workplace standards after disasters. Yes, suspending enforcement of workplace standards after disasters. And instead, they usually, only are now handing out advice on quick ways to fix health and safety hazards. Solutions in fact, that might prove insufficient.

María Inés: Right, Maria, but only two years after Katrina, experts from UCLA warned that this approach left Latino workers, and I quote, “unprotected.” Their studies showed barriers like language and legal status left workers unable to negotiate workplace safety. 

Maria Hinojosa: And the study also warned that the negative impact of OSHA’s policies on workers’ health could be, quote, “duplicated throughout the country,” unquote, without rigorous oversight.

María Inés: And yet, after months of digging, our team found that OSHA continues to implement the same post Katrina policy that favors fast recovery over worker safety, ignoring years of federal research on workplace safeguards. 

Maria Hinojosa: And in an internal OSHA report, the agency argued that just giving advice to employers, would in fact, address dangerous hazards while avoiding the long bureaucratic process of issuing a formal citation.

But the reality is that without enforcing existing labor standards, there are no other ways to pressure contractors to fix those health and safety hazards. So, to get a sense of how the policy is implemented on the ground, we spoke with an OSHA employee who has visited hundreds of post disaster worksites since Katrina.

We’re gonna call him Brian, and we’re protecting his identity because he’s not allowed to speak with the media. Brian described a worksite in New Orleans where none of the workers had the protective equipment that they needed. 

Brian: When we talked to them, the owner told us, he yelled at us: “You’re going to screw the recovery. We cannot comply with OSHA because it takes too much time and costs too much money.” 

Maria Hinojosa: That is not Bryan’s real voice. One of our colleagues at Latino USA has recorded his answers just as he said them to us. Brian told us that he and his colleagues face hostility from contractors. One time, one called a colleague of Brian’s, quote, an ignorant broad.

Still, there’s little that they can do in response. Once, when a contractor refused to provide protective equipment, Brian says he thought to himself: 

Brian: Oh my God, if this was an enforcement inspection, every one of the hazards that we’re finding would be a willful violation because the man is saying he’s refusing to comply with OSHA.

He knows what the regulations are and he’s refusing to comply. 

Maria Hinojosa: Listening to Brian, I had to ask: Do you think you’re able to do your job regarding a disaster if you don’t have that enforcement tool to literally force employers to keep their workers safe? 

Brian: It’s frustrating sometimes. It’s frustrating because we talk to them and we give them information. And when we leave, we’re wondering if they’re going to comply or they’re just going to ignore it. 

María Inés: Maria, what Brian told you echoes what our team found. Nailing down OSHA’s approach to monitoring post disaster work sites was difficult. But once we did it with the help of public records, we were able to analyze how it was implemented on the ground.

Powerful Hurricane Ian gave us that opportunity.

Ian devastated Southwest Florida in September 2022, and it was the most recent disaster during our reporting. We reviewed reports and found that OSHA inspectors often spend only about 15 minutes in each of the hundreds of work sites they visited. While inspectors did flag hazards, like roofing without a harness, all they did was hand out information material.

And they did most of the inspections from outside the structures. They rarely went inside to review the work practices. 

Maria Hinojosa: So, they go and hand out information, and what happens to the companies that receive this quote-unquote advice or guidance from these OSHA inspectors? 

María Inés: Well, that’s a difficult question to answer.

The agency has poor record keeping. It doesn’t track activities related to its post disaster policy or company’s violations across disasters. And it is so important, Maria, to have those records because it can help spot potential troubled companies. 

Maria Hinojosa: And at the end of the day, no matter what guidance OSHA offers, the guidance only works if the employer is deemed responsible for keeping workers safe.

(MUSIC)

So we’re going to meet the person who created OSHA’s post disaster policy. Our team interviewed John Henshaw, who wrote the guidance during the George W. Bush administration when he was the Department of Labor’s assistant secretary. 

María Inés: That’s right, Maria. We visited him last March in his Sanibel Island office in Florida.

Hi, Maria. Nice to meet you.

John Henshaw: Good to meet you. 

Samantha: Thanks for having us. 

María Inés: Our team connected with Henshaw in his current role as Sanibel Island City Council member. We spoke just months after Hurricane Ian devastated his community in September 2022. When Henshaw welcomed us into his office, I noticed the conference room’s walls covered in 9/11 photos and memorabilia. He spoke about the 9/11 cleanup in detail as the terrorist attacks set the tone for a new federal approach post disasters.

He enthusiastically shared his praise and respect for first responders. 

John Henshaw: We were fortunate that we were working together on the same issue: protect the workers, make sure we don’t lose another life, rescue as many people as we can and recover as quickly as we can. So everybody was on the same page. 

María Inés: Then, he offered a different perspective on the workers cleaning and rebuilding his wealthy island.

John Henshaw: Oftentimes, you have unskilled people and many of them, and I’m sure, uh, we had a good number here, recent immigrants, um, who have a different risk tolerance than maybe we have in the United States. 

Maria Hinojosa: This is a statement that is just hard to hear, to say that just because they’re immigrants, they’re recent immigrants, they have a different risk tolerance.

I think everybody wants to work in safe conditions and be alive at the end of the day, right? 

María Inés: Maria, yes. And he also downplayed the skills needed to clean and rebuild. 

John Henshaw: It’s not a skilled labor. It’s really just knocking down drywall and pulling it out and, and hauling off to the curb. So it’s more of a labor, kind of, laborers’ kind of, uh, work as opposed to any kinda skill.

María Inés: When we asked him about hurricane recovery efforts, this is what he said. 

John Henshaw: I put myself in the employer’s shoes. The employer is talking to the, to the homeowner. And that’s where the pressure is. OSHA said it should be holding the employer accountable for doing it, what, doing what they need to do. Do it right. Now the employer is saying I gotta deal with my client and they’re putting pressure on me to get it done.

Maria Hinojosa: What about putting yourself in the shoes of the workers? I mean, it’s frankly shocking to hear the former assistant secretary of labor for OSHA speaking like this about who matters most, workers or employers? 

María Inés: We also reached out to the current OSHA leadership multiple times. We shared our findings, but the agency declined to make Assistant Secretary Douglas Parker available for an interview.

Instead, they provided a written statement stressing that quote, employers have the responsibility to protect workers from deadly hazards such as mold, asbestos, and lead. Ultimately, though, OSHA defends its policy. 

Maria Hinojosa: A policy that, as we just heard earlier from Brian, our source at OSHA, a policy that employers basically sometimes just ignore.

Leaving workers like brothers Mariano and Santos, again, unsafe and unprotected.

So, dear listener, as we’re unpacking this huge, multi billion dollar disaster recovery industry, you might be wondering about how companies hire workers, but avoid having to provide, let’s say, training and protective equipment. Who’s trying to solve this problem, in fact, and who is profiting? That’s coming up after the break.

Stay with us. No te vayas.

Hey, dear listener, welcome back. And before the break, we heard about how OSHA, the government agency tasked with protecting workers, often suspends the enforcement of labor standards after disasters hit. The agency offers employers guidance on health and safety hazards, rarely issuing citations, just offering advice.

This ultimately leaves workers unprotected and exposed to harmful toxins that can make them sick. But, where do the workers doing this toxic labor come from? That supply chain is more complicated than just employers and workers. In fact, most workers are hired by labor brokers that provide the manpower for companies receiving those lucrative cleaning contracts and ultimately letting those companies off the hook because of those brokers, which leaves immigrants like Mariano and Santos unprotected and vulnerable.

María Inés: That’s right, Maria. And Santos told me that he kept working even after he felt sick. Within two years of grueling work, demolishing moldy structures, and being exposed to asbestos and lead, he needed an inhaler for the first time in his life.

Santos: Yo me recuerdo bien. Ese año sí me recuerdo porque fue el año…

María Inés: remembers the year well, it was 2007, the same year his mother died, thousands of miles away in Honduras. Cleaning after hurricanes became Santos’ livelihood in the U.S., but he was familiar with their destruction long before. It was the wrath of Hurricane Mitch that forced them to migrate to the United States.

News Anchor 3: In late October 1998, a tropical storm in the southwest Caribbean suddenly intensified into one of the strongest hurricanes this century. Meteorologists called it Mitch. 

María Inés: Mitch destroyed Honduras in 1998, causing more than 5,000 deaths and over 4 billion dollars in economic losses. It contaminated the Choluteca River, where Santos used to fish for work.

Then, one of his sons needed surgery. A year later, without a source of income to feed his children, and the urgency to pay for health care, he decided to migrate north. He first settled in Texas, then moved to Louisiana. Mariano, his younger brother, joined him a few years later, in 2005. Now, Mariano also suffers from the long term effects from being exposed to toxins.

Hemorragias nasales? 

Mariano: Hemorragias nasales. Incluso tengo, yo pienso que tengo porque no es mentira… 

María Inés: Mariano said he often wakes up in the middle of the night tasting a salty liquid, only to realize he’s bleeding. He doesn’t know if it’s coming from his nose or mouth. 

Maria Hinojosa: I’m imagining that this is a quite lonely experience for them, because these health conditions, I mean, they realize that no one is actually documenting what they’re feeling until now. 

María Inés: Yes, and Maria, you should know that there is an overlap with your reporting from almost two decades ago. A third of the workers we interviewed actually worked on Katrina in 2005. And today, while companies are profiting off of disasters, workers are still facing similar challenges. I saw it myself when I was reporting in Florida.

It was months after Hurricane Ian made landfall in the state in September of 2022.

News Anchor: “It’s hell on earth as Hurricane Ian slams into Florida.”

Maria Hinojosa: And you know, those images from Hurricane Ian were particularly devastating. The storm’s deadly winds ripped so many homes to shreds, lifted entire buildings off the ground, left miles of homes flooded, 150 people were killed during Ian, and it caused 112 billion dollars in damages.

María Inés: And just like after other natural disasters, workers came looking for jobs. We went to Fort Myers in Southwest Florida to see how the industry operates now. (MUSIC)

It’s just after sunrise on a weekday in March. I’m standing in the parking lot next to a gas station where small groups of day laborers wait for jobs. It’s been six months since Hurricane Ian ravaged the city of about 86,000 residents in September of 2022. Now, the work is dwindling.

When a white pickup truck stops, dozens of immigrants crowd it. They’re wearing dirty jeans, tennis shoes instead of the construction boots needed to avoid injuries. And they have no other protective equipment. A young man who appears to be in his 20s hangs off the driver’s window. He holds a navy blue backpack and stands taller than the men around him competing for the same job.

Worker: “¿Qué necesita jefe?”

María Inés: What do you need, boss? he asked the driver. After negotiating the rate, the driver tells the men hovering around: “Only one.”

Worker: “Uno solo.”

María Inés: The lone worker hops inside. Disappointed, the rest of the sun-kissed laborers walk away to wait for another truck. Most of them are newly arrived and undocumented immigrants from Honduras, Guatemala, Haiti, and other countries.

Most are afraid to speak with us about toxin exposure. (MUSIC)

Worker: “Pues nosotros estamos aquí un poco escondidos.”

María Inés: I spoke with a teenager from Guatemala, off mic, who is looking for work. He’s 5’3. I only know because he’s my height. He was worried about going to work hungry. He described the unique stomach pains brought on by hunger. “Only those who have experienced it, can recognize it,” he said. Then, he showed me the apple in his backpack, his only meal for the day.

The risk of being exposed to dangerous toxins was not on his radar.

Maria Hinojosa: María Inés, you know, I remember hearing about those same hunger pains and the fear of deportation back when I was in New Orleans in 2005 after Katrina. And so, again, it’s just alarming to hear how these same conditions are repeating decades later.

María Inés: That’s true, Maria. But now there are people who are trying to help, even if it’s mostly other workers. We saw it on display last March in New Orleans.

Familias Unidas: “Bueno, Familias Unidas tiene varios programas, uno es…”

María Inés: Volunteers from the grassroots organization Familias Unidas en Acción handed out construction masks, COVID tests, and provided information through their community health program known as Promotoras de Salud. The focus is to promote workers’ health. The organization also holds workplace safety trainings.

Familias Unidas: “Mascarillas como también la importancia de las vacunas…”

María Inés: Mario Mendoza founded the organization with his wife Leticia Casildo. They both worked in cleanups after Katrina and quickly realized immigrants needed a support system. They’ve stepped in to feed and help evacuate undocumented immigrants during natural disasters.

Mario: “Pero aprendí una cosa que digo yo, me cansé como dicen de esperar el tren, como dicen, cuando comprendí que yo tengo una responsabilidad.”

María Inés: Mario is wearing a bright green t-shirt promoting a campaign to allow undocumented immigrants to get a driver’s license in Louisiana.

His short salt and pepper hair is messy from when he puts his reading glasses on his head. He told me he was tired of waiting for change. He realized he needed to step up and speak up, and organized for better working conditions.

Mario: “Yo creo que el sistema de este país no les interesan sus trabajadores, solo les interesa su mano de obra.”

María Inés: Mario said the system is not designed to help undocumented workers. He said, quote, “They don’t care about the workers. They just care about their labor.” (MUSIC)

Maria Hinojosa: So what Mario told you, Maria Inés, speaks to how this industry has shielded companies from accountability And this is how they do it: No special certification is needed to join the disaster restoration business, which attracts traditional construction companies. And since most workers are hired through labor brokers, as we said previously, the companies don’t have to worry about worker safety because they weren’t the ones who actually hired the workers.

Making matters worse, the sector has gone largely under the public’s radar.

María Inés: So to understand this industry, let’s focus on one company as an example. We’ll use Servpro. It’s a popular disaster restoration company worth a billion dollars. It lends its name to over 2,000 franchises worldwide, and in 2020, the COVID pandemic created a unique opportunity for workers to demand personal protective equipment and better working conditions.

Maria Hinojosa: And that was the case of a group of workers who traveled to Michigan, after a dam failed from unseasonably heavy rains. Workers filed a lawsuit against Servpro Industries, the national corporation, the Servpro franchise in Michigan, and several subcontractors. They alleged that they were denied proper health and safety gear as they tore down water-logged buildings filled with mold. The workers also argued that their employers violated the public health executive order signed at the time by Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, in order to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

John Philo is with the Detroit-based Sugar Law Center. He represents the workers, and he said the system makes it hard to hold those big companies accountable for worker safety.

John Philo: That company divorcing itself from any sort of responsibility to the workers, artificially, right? By entering into a contract with a subcontractor, who’s a labor broker, who then in turn entered into another contract with another sub broker, and each step down the line, what you see is the next lowest company has far less capacity to, let’s say, implement health and safety concerns.

María Inés: Servpro Industries, based in Tennessee, argued that it had no legal duty to the workers hired by subcontractors. The company went as far as calling the workers, quote, “total strangers” in a court filing. And the judge presiding over the case sided with Servpro, saying that it only had jurisdiction over the local franchise.

John Philo: What the court is saying is that despite them having franchises literally that are serving every county of this state, our clients would have to go to the home county of Servpro in Tennessee, to sue them in this case. A county where none of them live, where none of them worked, where none of the injuries occurred, that has no connection whatsoever other than it’s the hometown of the people who are being sued. That’s offensive.

Maria Hinojosa: Servpro declined to answer any specific questions related to the lawsuit, saying that as a franchisor it quote “does not provide, contract, or subcontract any direct services and thus is not responsible to workers.” The franchise and subcontractors denied the allegations. Now, this profitable business model has made disaster restoration companies desirable targets for acquisition.

According to a 2023 report by the Equity Stakeholder Project, the report shows how private equity firms acquired 72 disaster restoration companies over the previous three and a half years. It doesn’t specify how much money is there, but we know it’s in the billions. For example, Blackstone, the king of private equity, paid over a billion dollars to acquire Servpro in 2019.

On the federal level, there are some efforts to help these workers.

Pramila Jayapal: People aren’t asking the roofer or whoever is rebuilding your home what their immigration status is. They’re just very grateful that somebody is helping them to rebuild.

Maria Hinojosa: This is Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat from Washington State and last September, Jayapal reintroduced the Climate Resilience Workforce Act, which she first presented in 2022 in the House of Representatives.

In a first, her proposal would establish a temporary immigrant status for these restoration laborers.

Pramila Jayapal: I’m hoping to start with doing field hearings where we invite our colleagues across the aisle to come as well and to hear, from Republicans and Democrats, how undocumented immigrants have been building their communities back, but have little to no protections from the dangers of their jobs, like physical risks, but also employers who stiff them on pay.

Maria Hinojosa: The bill has 43 co-sponsors so far, but it hasn’t moved past committee. It doesn’t address OSHA’s role in all of this either. And I asked representative Jayapal, why?

Pramila Jayapal: I think once we get the program, we can also make sure in other bills that were addressing some of the oversight and accountability, but this is really a workforce establishment, you know, a pathway, workforce pathway establishment bill, and, uh, if we can get this done, listen, if we can add some of those accountability provisions, that would be great. (MUSIC)

Maria Hinojosa: Now it is good news to hear that someone in Congress is concerned about the safety of these immigrant laborers. But after listening to Mariano and Santos talk about the incredible toll that this work has taken on them, it’s clear that the issue isn’t moving with the urgency that it needs in order to address specific toxin exposure.

As an example, in March, the federal government announced a ban on the only type of asbestos still used in the country. It’s known as white asbestos and it’s commonly present in construction material. But it took more than 30 years to issue this rule. And it could take up to 12 more years for all companies to stop using the dangerous carcinogen.

So the problem just continues

 

María Inés: Today, Santos and Mariano still work together on disaster cleanup, but now they wear protective equipment they can afford.

Santos: Pero ahora nosotros ya, ya sabemos cómo, ya sabemos cómo  protegernos, aquí andamos con máscaras, con guantes.

María Inés: Santos recently sent me a video proudly showing me him and his brother at a worksite, wearing masks and gloves they bought themselves to lessen toxin exposure. And Mariano is also working for Resilience Force. It’s another workers’ rights organization advocating for restoration workers.

And Mario, the worker and activist, is still focusing on creating strong mutual aid in his community, a lesson he learned at home. Back in Honduras, he remembers sitting under a mango tree. While enjoying the shade and savoring the fruit together. Mario’s father told him:

Mario: A veces esto va a ser para tus hijos y para los hijos de tus hijos. Tú tienes que sembrar para futuro, no tienes que sembrar para ahora.

María Inés: His father told him his great-grandfather planted the tree knowing he wouldn’t get to taste the mangoes himself, but his family would. The takeaway for Mario is clear. You plant the seeds of community, and then you wait for the fruits of their labor.

Maria Hinojosa: Toxic Labor is a project of Futuro Investigates in collaboration with the Center for Public Integrity and Columbia Journalism Investigations. This investigation was reported by Maria Inés Zamudio, Samantha McCabe, Janelle Retka, and Jiahui Huang. It was edited by McNelly Torres from the Center for Public Integrity and Kristen Lombardi from Columbia Journalism Investigations.

This episode was produced by Maria Inés Zamudio, Nour Saudi, and Roxana Aguirre. It was edited by Andrea López-Cruzado. Scoring and sound design by Jacob Rosati. It was mixed by Stephanie Lebow and Julia Caruso. Peter Newbatt Smith did fact-checking for us. Legal review by Michael Rothberg.

The public integrity team also includes Matt Derienzo, Janeen Jones, Ashley Clarke, Vanessa Freedman, and Charlie Dodge.

To find out more information about Toxic Labor, and read our web article, visit futuroinvestigates.org, again, that’s futuroinvestigates.org. The Latino USA team also includes Victoria Estrada, Reynaldo Leaños Jr., Glorimar Márquez, Marta Martínez, Mike Sargent, and Nancy Trujillo. Peniley Ramírez is our co-executive producer.

Our marketing manager is Luis Luna. Our theme music was composed by Xenia Rubiños. I’m Maria Hinojosa, your host and co-executive producer, and we’ll see you on our next episode. And acuérdate, ¡No te vayas! Ciao!

Stephanie Lebow: Latino USA is made possible in part by the Tao Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and W.K. Kellogg Foundation, a partner with communities where children come first.

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