Issues for climate disaster resilience workers
Broadcast date: week of April 8, 2022
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Resilience workers are on the front lines of climate change recovery. The image above shows 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 important than ever. But advocates say too many of these “resilience workers” are underpaid, overworked, and lack the resources they need to stay safe in hazardous working conditions. Co-host Jenni Doering shares the story of Joel Salazar, a former Reconstruction worker who now works as a field organizer for the nonprofit Resilience Force, with host Steve Curwood.
CURWOOD: It lives on earth, I’m Steve Curwood.
And I’m Jenni Doering
NEWS BAND: Right now we are looking at the impending 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 images of the devastation brought about by disasters like Hurricane Ida in 2021 are quickly disappearing from our news feeds after just a few days. But Steve, as you know, the hard work of rebuilding takes much longer.
CURWOOD: Right Jenni, it takes many months and even years to clean up such disasters and we are seeing more and more of them with climate disruption.
DOERING: Yes, we definitely are. Well, a lot of the people doing this work belong to a group called resilience workers. They are often low-paid immigrants, sometimes undocumented, who travel across the United States from disaster to disaster rebuilding communities, much like farm workers pursue seasonal crops. Advocates say they are the unsung heroes in rebuilding our country from the ravages of climate change, but that they are often exploited. These advocates say these workers are overworked, underpaid and lacking the resources they need to stay safe.
CURWOOD: Oh my god, I understand that you recently connected with one of these resilience workers.
DOERING: Right, Joel Salazar started this type of work right after he moved to the United States from Venezuela five years ago.
Salazar [W/ VOICEOVER]: I arrived in Panama City Beach after Hurricane Michael, a Category 5 hurricane, which completely devastated this city. Then I got involved in rebuilding local communities.
DOERING: Joel did heroic work, but it was often dangerous and traumatic.
SALAZAR: The hardest thing is seeing how a hurricane or a fire has destroyed millions of homes. And to see first-hand how climate change is affecting everyday life. When I see this horrible level of destruction, I’m scared because I’m not sure what’s to come. I can be electrocuted, I can find a person’s corpse, or come into contact with chemicals. And many of us are not prepared or equipped for the work that we must face. This saddens me because we are risking our lives so that communities can be rebuilt and people can go back to their homes and get on with their lives.
DOERING: And because thousands of these immigrant workers are in precarious positions, they often have no choice but to accept a contractor’s low wages, if they get paid at all. And so Joel says he was taken advantage of.
SALAZAR: I became a victim of labor exploitation, of labor fraud. I was not compensated.
CURWOOD: That’s terrible. Jenni, what about labor standards, what kind of protections are there for these resilience workers?
DOERING: That’s the thing, government aid money is currently being awarded without specifying basic occupational safety measures such as minimum wage, overtime pay and safer working conditions. Joel is trying to fill that gap and now works as an organizer for Resilience Force, a nonprofit organization that aims to empower and secure the resilience workforce in America. Part of his job is to protect resilience workers from the injustice he has experienced.
SALAZAR: As field organizers, we visit the centers where these workers meet and try to provide support. They are alone most of the time, come to the United States alone and have no one to rely on for support. I’ve also seen resilience workers being kicked out of cities or immigration picking them up once the cleanup is over. So it is very sad to see how many of us leave stable lives to travel and rebuild communities and then after the work is done we are put aside and left.
DOERING: And Steve, the lack of basic labor protections and access to health care can lead to tragedy. As in the case of David Martinez, a Reconstruction worker knew Joel Salazar personally.
SALAZAR: Today we got an early call. One of the resilience workers we work with was found in a public area, found dead. Probably because of some illness. Unfortunately, many resilience workers don’t have healthcare, they can’t go to a hospital. And often they die in the worst possible way. And that news hit all of us today who work as field organizers. It’s really hard to understand why this young man didn’t get the full support he needed. Just like him, there are many resilience workers who have no support. That’s why this organization exists, to say, “Hey, I’ve been in your shoes, you can do that.” That’s why we’re trying to give as much support as we can to transform this industry.
CURWOOD: Wow, that’s such a heartbreaking story.
DOERING: That’s it. But there is a glimmer of hope.
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