VULNERABILITIES OF LOW-WAGE WORKERS AND SOME THOUGHTS ON IMPROVING WORKPLACE PROTECTIONS: THE EXPERIENCE OF THE WORKPLACE JUSTICE PROJECT.

Author:Molina, Luz M.
 
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  1. The Nature of Low-Wage Work in the South A. Why The Workplace Justice Project Came into Being: The Naked Truth Post-Katrina 1. The Face of Low-Wage Workers: Before and After the Storm 2. Commonplace Abuses by Employers: Before and After the Storm 3. Collateral Difficulties Faced by Low-Wage Workers II. What the Project Learned in the Course of Representing Low-Wage Workers: The Limits of Available Legal Protections A. A Worker's Story B. The Bedrock for Unpaid Louisiana Workers: The Louisiana Wage Payment Act C. A Note on Protections Available to Construction Laborers D. The Fair Labor Standards Act E. Collecting Judgments III. What Could and Should Be Done to Effect Meaningful Change A. Refraining the Issue: Baby Steps Toward Systemic Change 1. Increasing Access to Enforcement i. Access to Court ii. Building Relationships with Federal Government Agencies 2. Reforming the Law B. Moving Forward Beyond 1. Wage Theft - Raising Wages 2. Where do We Go from Here? THE NATURE OF LOW-WAGE WORK IN THE SOUTH

As we observe the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we cannot help but reflect on its aftermath, particularly the economic recovery of the city of New Orleans. Beyond the painfully personal dislocation and social disorientation, memories of the early days immediately after that colossal disaster are punctuated by images of mostly Latino workers placing blue tarps on roofs, cleaning debris from the streets, gutting vacant and fetid homes, and the relentless media disaster portrayals, as varied as every individual point of view. Each resident of New Orleans, rich and poor, was forced to survive in an environment where nothing was certain, where stable and local jobs might not return, and where securing a place to live was equally uncertain and difficult. The city of New Orleans went into overdrive: cleaning up, tearing down, and rebuilding as quickly as possible, initially with FEMA monies from the federal government, and later with settlements from property insurance claims. Latino immigrants made an integral and substantial contribution to the rebuilding of New Orleans, (2) although a large proportion of the contractors, subcontractors and foremen who came from all over the United States were white. (3)

Immediately following Hurricane Katrina, workers moved to New Orleans by the thousands. (4) Work was abundant--but so was worker exploitation. (5) It was in that environment that the Workplace Justice Project ("the Project") was born in December 2005, and in 2007 launched a weekly Wage Claim Clinic to provide legal assistance to workers who quickly felt the impact of the abuse: serious and deadly injuries, abhorrent housing conditions, abusive working conditions which included no breaks and exceptionally long work hours, and coercive employer behavior. The capstone of this exploitive work environment was the employers' refusal to pay workers their wages and employers' belief that they could do so with impunity. These abuses flourished in an environment where labor and employment law enforcement was practically nonexistent, a challenge which remains today in other ways. (6) The Project's efforts are ongoing. (7) The post-Katrina rebuilding effort has continued to create work in and around New Orleans. (8) In particular, in the nearly ten years since its inception, the Project has targeted its resources on recovering hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid wages, along with a smattering of other workplace related issues such as discrimination in the workplace. This experience led the Project to contextualize the issue of unpaid wages within the larger sphere of workers' rights. The resulting exposition of the difficulties experienced by workers revealed their plight in its full measure. These difficulties clearly correlate with issues characteristic of low-wage work, namely the array of abuses which have eroded the few protections available, and--where no protections were available at all--the lack of progress necessary to fashion and implement appropriate measures.

The events and circumstances that unfolded post-Katrina have been at once a confirmation of the lack of protections available for workers in the South as well as an awakening to the magnitude of the problem and difficulty in promoting and establishing such protections. In light of this experience, the Project called for a public reframing of workers' issues consistent with a broader understanding of their nature and societal impact. Thus, a conference was convened to explore the effect of slavery and post-reconstruction labor practices on the "modern" South, as well as how such labor practices have consistently contributed to and promoted income inequality. (9)

At its March 2015 conference, Work in the South: Dixie Cotton, American Steel and a Hurricane named Katrina--A Reinvention of Bondage ("Work in the South"), the Project traced the labor history of low-wage workers in the South from slavery to post-reconstruction, and from World War II to the present, to explain the difficulties faced by Southern low-wage workers today. (10) The Project also defined the contours of low-wage work, including current trends, and endeavored to sort out the challenges clearly looming large for the next generation of low-wage workers not only in the South, but throughout the entire United States. After a full exposition of issues affecting low-wage workers at the conference, it was clear that participants felt our economic and legal systems neither favored nor valued fair wages and working conditions. Rather, it was felt that we are perpetuating and, in fact, adopting the South's legacy--a pattern and practice of divisive labor practices, racism, lack of comprehensive legal protections and perversely low wages. For example, in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina and Tennessee - essentially the Deep South (11)--there are no minimum wage laws. (12) "The South's aversion to both minimum-wage standards and unions is rooted deep within the DNA of white Southern elites, whose primary impulse has always been to keep African Americans down." (13) Moreover, "the region's distinctive absence of legislation and institutions that protect workers' interests" contributes to low wages in the South, and "[f]or global manufacturers, the United States--more precisely, the American South--has become the low-wage alternative to China." (14)

This article explores the landscape of low-wage work in the South through the Workplace Justice Project's experience: why the Project came into being; what the Project learned in the course of representing low-wage workers, and what could and should be done to effect meaningful change.

  1. Why The Workplace Justice Project Came into Being: The Naked Truth Post-Katrina

    1. The Face of Low-Wage Workers: Before and After the Storm

      Low-wage work is predominantly relied upon in industries such as food preparation and service, personal care, building maintenance, health support, sales, transportation, manufacturing or production, protective services, administrative support and construction. (15) Many of these industries are and have been major components of New Orleans' economic engines. (16) Low-wage workers in these industries generally face a high rate of poverty. (17) Moreover, Blacks and Latinos are generally overrepresented in the low-wage worker population. (18)

      The "low-wage worker" label suggests different meanings ranging from the most literal to the most sophisticated--which is often centered on wage metrics. The label is at once precise and vague; other than the obvious meaning, there is no definitive description of a "low-wage worker." (19) More often than not, "[t]he term connotes an image of a worker paid far less than the median wage in a job offering little upward mobility... [offering] little in the way of benefits and... [possibly having] an irregular schedule." (20) Moreover, the "low-wage worker" is often thought of as living in poverty; one definition of "low-wage worker" is someone whose earnings place him below the poverty line. (21) As discussed below, the connection is clear. Low-wage workers embody all the characteristics of those toiling in poverty: limited job networks and employment ambitions; inhibited educational opportunities which would improve job prospects; poor physical and mental health outcomes; high crime exposure; and inability to build wealth, among others. (22)

      Moreover, there are persistent misconceptions about low-wage work which paint unfair portraits of workers and imply this problem is either not worth fixing (as when low-wage work is incorrectly regarded as unskilled and lacking in some social value), or is only temporary and thus will improve (as when low-wage work is mistakenly believed to be just a stepping stone on the way to higher-paying jobs). Neither is true. For example, the largely low-wage jobs in food preparation, as noted below, require skills which include active listening, service orientation, equipment selection, reading comprehension, product inspection, equipment maintenance, coordination, speaking, problem identification, writing and many more, (23) a fact that would belie any assumption that this type of work is unskilled. In short, low-wage work does in fact require technical skill and is an integral part of our society. (24) Likewise, the idea that these are temporary jobs, likely belonging to teenagers on their way to something better, is not borne out by the statistics. The average low-wage worker, contrary to popular opinion, tends to be older: eighty percent of low-wage workers are older than twenty-five years old. (25) Moreover, over half are women; minorities and Southern workers are overrepresented; they have some education, but generally less than other workers; and "their earnings are a big part of their family budgets." (26)

      Prior to Hurricane Katrina, "black people in New Orleans were disproportionately poor, and poor people in New Orleans were...

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