Troubles for Climate Disaster Resilience Workers
Air Date: Week of April 8, 2022
Resilience workers find themselves on the front lines of climate change reconstruction. The image above features damaged homes after Hurricane Laura swept through the Lake Charles, Louisiana area. (Photo: Courtesy of Resilience Force)
As climate related disasters worsen, the people who help rebuild cities afterwards are more vital than ever. But advocates say too many of these “resilience workers” are underpaid, overworked, and lack the resources they need to be safe in hazardous working conditions. Co-host Jenni Doering shares with Host Steve Curwood the story of Joel Salazar, a former reconstruction worker who now works as a field organizer for the nonprofit Resilience Force.
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood.
And I’m Jenni Doering
NEWS TAPE: Right now we are looking at the imminent landfall of this storm. Winds of 150 miles per hour. Storm surges up to 15 to 16 feet, 20 inches of rain or more with this system.
DOERING: The scenes of devastation brought by disasters like Hurricane Ida in 2021 quickly fade from our news feeds after just a few short days. But, Steve, as you know the hard work of rebuilding lasts a lot longer.
CURWOOD: Right Jenni, it takes many months and even years to clean up from disasters like that, and we’re seeing more and more of them with climate disruption.
DOERING: Yeah we sure are. Well, many of the people doing that work belong to a group called resilience workers. They’re often low-paid immigrants, sometimes undocumented, who travel across the U.S. from disaster to disaster rebuilding communities, kind of like how agricultural workers follow seasonal crops. Advocates say they’re the unsung heroes of rebuilding our country from the ravages of climate change but that they’re often being exploited. These advocates say these workers are overworked, underpaid, and not given the resources they need to be safe.
CURWOOD: Oh my, I understand you recently connected with one of these resilience workers.
DOERING: That’s right, Joel Salazar got started with this kind of work right after he moved to the United States from Venezuela 5 years ago.
SALAZAR [W/ VOICEOVER]: I arrived in Panama City Beach after hurricane Michael, a category 5 hurricane that completely destroyed that city. Then I became involved in reconstructing local communities.
DOERING: Joel was doing heroic work but it was often dangerous and traumatic.
SALAZAR: The most difficult part is seeing how a hurricane or a fire has destroyed millions of homes. And watching first hand how climate change impacts daily life. When I see that horrible level of destruction, I am afraid because I’m not sure what I may face. I may be electrocuted, I may find the body of a person or come in contact with chemicals. And a lot of us are not prepared or equipped for this work that we must face. So that saddens me because we risk our lives so communities can rebuild and people can go back to their homes and continue on with their lives.
DOERING: And because thousands of these workers are in vulnerable positions as immigrants, they often have no choice but to accept the low pay a contractor offers, if they get paid at all. And that’s how Joel says he was taken advantage of.
SALAZAR: I was a victim of labor exploitation, of labor fraud. I wasn’t compensated.
CURWOOD: That’s horrible. Jenni, what about labor standards, what kind of protections are in place for these resilience workers?
DOERING: That’s the thing, federal aid dollars are currently doled out without specifying basic labor protections like a minimum wage, overtime pay and safer working conditions. Joel’s trying to help fill that gap and he now works as an organizer for Resilience Force, a nonprofit aimed at strengthening and securing America’s Resilience workforce. Part of his job involves protecting resilience workers from the injustice he experienced.
SALAZAR: As field organizers, we visit the centers where these workers meet and we try to provide support. A lot of the time they are alone, they arrive in the United States by themselves and they can’t count on anyone for support. I’ve also seen that once the cleanup is over, resilience workers are kicked out of cities or immigration picks them up. So, it’s very sad to see how a lot of us leave a stable life to travel and reconstruct communities, and then after the work is done we are set aside and abandoned.
DOERING: And Steve, the lack of basic labor protections and access to healthcare can lead to tragedy. Like in the case of David Martinez, a reconstruction worker Joel Salazar knew personally.
SALAZAR: Today we got an early call. One of the resilience workers we work with was found in a public area, he was found dead. Probably because of some sort of illness. Unfortunately, a lot of resilience workers don’t have healthcare, they can’t go to a hospital. And often times they end up dying in the worst way. And that news today impacted all of us who work as field organizers. It’s really hard to see how this young man did not receive the full support he needed. Just like him there are a lot of resilience workers who don’t have any support. That’s why this organization exists to say “hey, I’ve been in your shoes this is what you can do”. So we are trying to provide the maximum support we can to change this industry.
CURWOOD: Wow, that’s such a heartbreaking story.
DOERING: It is. But there is a glimmer of hope.
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