Gulf Watch: Hearing spotlights workplace injustice in post-Katrina New Orleans

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) held a hearing yesterday on the adequacy of labor law enforcement in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina. Among those testifying was Jennifer Rosenbaum with the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, which helped bring several successful lawsuits against employers who stole wages from workers in the wake of the storm.

Not surprisingly, Rosenbaum concluded that enforcement was not adequate:

In my view, the [Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division] failed to provide a reasonable level of resources to the region, given the enormous scale of the disaster. Because of this failure, the DOL-WHD, through its New Orleans and Gulf Coast offices, had a limited ability to intervene and address the well-reported, epic wage theft that accompanied the reconstruction. The DOL-WHD thus allowed chains of subcontracted corporations to profit on the backs of the underpaid workers, particularly vulnerable migrant workers. In addition, the DOL-WHD failed to competently record and investigate many of the complaints that it did receive. In the resulting lawlessness, DOL-WHD utterly failed to protect migrant workers from minimum wage and overtime violations and from retaliation.

Other workers' advocates who testified at the hearing were Saket Soni and Jacob Horowitz with the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice, Tracie Washington of the Louisiana Justice Institute, Catherine Ruckelshaus with the National Employment Law Project and Ted Smukler of Interfaith Worker Justice.

IWJ recently released a report titled "Working on Faith: A Faithful Response to Worker Abuse in New Orleans." Based on interviews with 218 workers -- domestic and migrant -- in New Orleans last summer, the report reveals that:

* 47 percent reported not receiving all the pay they were entitled to while working in the region since Katrina;

* 55 percent said they received no overtime pay for hours worked beyond 40 per week;

* 58 percent said they were exposed at work to dangerous substances including mold, contaminated water and asbestos; and

* workers were unaware that the U.S. Department of Labor was an agency charged with protecting their rights.