Clinic News

UC Berkeley-Tulane Study Reveals Worker Abuse in Katrina Reconstruction (June 2006)

Undocumented workers helping to rebuild New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina lack adequate access to health care, are subject to wage discrepancy and are operating under unsafe working conditions, among other employment rights violations, according to new study released in June 2006 by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley and Tulane University.

Clinic director, Professor Laurel Fletcher is a co-author of the study in which the International Human Rights Law Clinic at Boalt Hall and UC Berkeley's Human Rights Center joined with Tulane's Payson Center for International Development and Technology Transfer in a comprehensive survey of more than 200 workers in March 2006. The study found that a quarter of the workforce involved in reconstruction efforts is made up of undocumented Latinos, hired after the federal government granted special waivers of immigration employment laws in the aftermath of the storm.

The report, Rebuilding After Katrina: A Population-Based Study of Labor and Human Rights in New Orleans, specifically found:

  • On average, documented workers received significantly higher wages—an average of $6.50 per hour more—than undocumented workers performing the same jobs;
  • Nearly a third of workers surveyed reported operating with harmful substances and under dangerous conditions, while nearly 20 percent said they did not receive any protective equipment for hazardous work;
  • Only nine percent of undocumented workers surveyed had health insurance, whereas more than half or 55 percent of document workers were covered by health plans. Some 83 percent of documented workers reported that they received needed medications, while only 38 percent of undocumented workers said they were able to obtain medication when needed; and
  • Construction workers, particularly those among the undocumented workforce, reported problems receiving wages.

"Reconstruction after natural disasters exposes workers to some of the worst on-the-job hazards in situations where services, especially access to health care, are scarce. Public officials at all levels—federal, state, and local—need to strengthen monitoring and enforcement of worker health and safety protections," noted Laurel Fletcher, Clinical Professor of Law and director of the International Human Rights Law Clinic at Boalt.

Significantly, the study showed that 87 percent of the undocumented workers were already living in the United States before they moved to New Orleans, sharply refuting prior reports that hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused an influx of illegal immigrants across the U.S. border.

This project is supported by the Koret Foundation.