GULFPORT, Miss. – A pattern is emerging as the cleanup of Mississippi’s Gulf Coast morphs into its multibillion-dollar reconstruction: Come payday, untold numbers of Hispanic immigrant laborers are being stiffed. Sometimes, the boss simply vanishes. Other workers wait on promises that soon, someone in a complex hierarchy of contractors will provide the funds to pay them. Nonpayment of wages is a violation of federal labor law, but these workers – thousands of them, channeled into teams that corral debris, swaddle punctured roofs in blue tarps and gut rain-ravaged homes – are especially vulnerable because many are here illegally.
After Katrina hit, Armando Ojeda paid $1,200 to be smuggled across the desert border from Mexico, a walk that took several nights. Talk of $10 an hour – more in a day than he made each week at a computer factory back home – led him to pay another $1,200 to be crammed into a van with a dozen other immigrants and driven 1,600 miles, from a safe house in Arizona to Mississippi.
The passengers were not fed – Ojeda recalls his mouth watering when he smelled tacos the driver ate – and were discharged near the Naval Construction Battalion Center in Gulfport, where Ojeda sleepwalked though his first day clearing hurricane-strewn junk.
The job was supposed to pay $7 an hour. But six weeks later, Ojeda still hasn’t been paid the $600-plus he says he is owed for eight days of dawn-to-dusk labor.
Karen Tovar, the subcontractor on the job, acknowledged she hasn’t been able to pay dozens of workers a total of about $130,000. She insisted she was not at fault, blaming the way payments can be stalled along a long chain of subcontractors often led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
At one point, Tovar had 83 workers cleaning the Navy base under a broader, $12 million contract held by KBR, a firm owned by Vice President Dick Cheney’s former company, Halliburton.
After several weeks without pay, many workers grew frustrated and left.
“I’ve told them, ‘When I get paid, you will receive your funds.’ And they say, ‘When?’ ” she said. “I’m very sure it’s going to be shortly.”
An Army Corps spokesman said he wasn’t aware of any problems with payments. A KBR spokeswoman wouldn’t provide details about the base cleanup, referring inquiries to the Navy, which referred questions about subcontractors back to KBR.
Tovar said she knew of other subcontractors who disappeared with their payrolls, and wondered whether her former workers expect she will abscond to her home in North Carolina.
“I don’t know if they’re thinking that I’ve left and took the money or that I’m trying to hide the funds, because I wouldn’t do that,” said Tovar, 47. “In my type of work, you’re working on trust.”
Armando Ojeda is not trusting. He doesn’t think he’ll be paid, though he remains among the platoons of workers bivouacked along the coast. His goal: to wire his parents in the poor southern state of Chiapas enough money to offset the cost of his trip, which he has come to see as a folly he had to indulge before age or commitments bound him home.
“I am stupid for coming,” he said, with a smile and shake of the head. “It was a foolish thing, nothing more.”
Nonpayment of immigrant workers is not a new phenomenon – and it doesn’t appear to be as much of an issue in New Orleans. With so much work to do and not enough laborers to do it, the market there appears to favor workers, said immigration lawyer David Ware.
What’s remarkable in Mississippi is the apparent scope of the problem, though it is impossible to quantify.
In this beleaguered state, which doesn’t have a labor department, the issue isn’t even on the radar.
Nonpayment is not specified as a crime under Mississippi law and the state Department of Employment Security defers wage claims to the federal Department of Labor. Workers who claim back wages have two formal options: Filing a civil suit in state court or a federal complaint. Mississippi prosecutors haven’t received any complaints, according to special assistant attorney general Peter Cleveland.
A spokeswoman for the federal Labor Department said she could not determine whether there have been any post-Katrina claims in the Gulf region. But there are some in the pipeline: On Friday, a representative of the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance said the advocacy group had prepared complaints on behalf of more than 150 workers who are owed more than $100,000 by five contractors, including Tovar’s KTS Services.
Out in the cleanup zone, dozens of Hispanic immigrant workers interviewed by the Associated Press shared a common refrain: “I worked without being paid.”
In Gulfport, several dozen men living in makeshift bunks in a hangar-like building said they were owed tens of thousands of dollars.
Like other workers, Alfredo Roblero saw opportunity in the wreckage and was recruited from Ft. Pierce, Fla., with promises of steady work for good wages, expenses paid.
“They bring you to nothing,” said Roblero, 26, who figured he was due about $500 for five days spent demolishing what was left of the coastal Casino Magic Biloxi. “They owe you, and you wait for them.”
Many of the workers wore the shirts of Dallas-based Restoration Group. In a subsequent telephone interview, company president James Rea said the workers were the responsibility of a subcontractor. He insisted all have been paid and blamed insurance companies for any delay.
“We’re all standing in line, and we take our piece of each dollar off as we hand it down,” he said, “and eventually it gets down to the end of the line.”
In a slovenly trailer park, men named Francisco and Oscar said they were owed thousands of dollars for weeks of work. Not long before, according to local immigrant advocates, more than a dozen workers were bunking in their trailer, each paying $10 per night for lodging to a subcontractor who they said then shorted them thousands of dollars.
Before that, the men had worked for – and had quit – Karen Tovar’s crew.
Tovar said that the men didn’t understand American pay schedules, specifically the practice of working two weeks before getting paid for the first.
“I’ve been to Mexico and, basically, these people live from week to week and when they come over here they have a misconception when the week is held back,” said Tovar.
Tovar said that she has worked other hurricane cleanups but has never had trouble being paid by other subcontractors. While she is now receiving a steady flow of payments, she said it’s not enough to pay off the $130,000 she owes 83 workers for helping clear the Navy base.
Elizabeth Martinez is another subcontractor who has been embroiled in wage disputes. She has been living among workers in a small tent city in Ocean Springs.
On Oct. 12, eight men who had been patching roofs asked a Texas-based immigrant worker advocate who was visiting the camp to help negotiate their pay.
As is often the case, the situation remains in dispute.
Advocate Anita Grabowski said the men, who came to Mississippi from Arkansas and have since scattered, worked two weeks and were due their money.
Bosses at the Alabama-based subcontractor that hired Martinez, Hughes Construction Services LLC, said the workers didn’t understand that they weren’t yet scheduled to be paid.
Martinez herself said she didn’t hire the workers to lay roof tarps and that they were trying to extort money they hadn’t earned – an increasingly common scam, she said.
Martinez said she didn’t want to pay until she checked her records. But the owners of family-run Hughes decided to front Martinez more than $15,000 to pay the men – $10 an hour, $15 for overtime.
“We just wanted it to be over with,” said Jody Hughes, one of three Hughes sons working the cleanup. The men were paid and agreed to find work elsewhere.
“Hughes was being intimidated,” Martinez said. “To me, it’s like paying off damn terrorists.”
On a chilly late October evening, Martinez stood near her tent, engrossed in discussions with three more men who had driven two hours from New Orleans to complain that she hadn’t paid them.
Martinez told their chief negotiator, Antonio Hernandez, that she had paid the fourth member of their roof-tarp crew, a man named Ruben who now was in Texas.
Soon summoned by cell phone, Ruben denied receiving any money. But one of Hernandez’s companions acknowledged that he had seen Martinez pay Ruben something, and Martinez produced handwritten records that persuaded the men she had advanced Ruben $700 cash, which the men hadn’t seen.
The men piled back into their beat-up brown van for the return ride to New Orleans with boxes of food and $150 in cash Martinez gave them “not because I owe you … as a gift.”
Just as they pulled out, Martinez flagged down four Guatemalan workers who walked into the encampment. She said a true scam artist had ripped off these unfortunates.
One by one, they explained that they had cleaned a school for 144 hours at a promised $8 an hour. Then one of their bosses dropped them on the side of the road, without food. Eventually, a church bus picked them up.
Any idea, they asked, of how to get paid?