When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, the devastation was immediate and intense — hundreds of thousands of people in the region lost their homes, the area’s infrastructure was decimated, and more than 1,800 people died, most of them Black and low-income. In the weeks and months following the storm, the Federal Emergency Management Administration, nonprofit groups, and disaster aid organizations arrived in Louisiana to lend a hand. 

So did migrant workers from Honduras, Venezuela, and other countries. Undocumented workers, along with formerly incarcerated American citizens, helped rebuild New Orleans. When that job was done, many of these workers moved on to the next storm-ravaged American city or town, and then the next, and the next. 

As climate change has intensified natural disasters, disaster recovery work has become increasingly lucrative, evolving into its own, multi-billion dollar industry. But the industry is highly exploitative. Companies compete for contracts from FEMA and states to do disaster recovery work. When they’re awarded a contract, some of those companies hire migrant workers and workers with criminal records at low wages. In some cases, migrants will pay labor brokers, disaster recovery middlemen, to put them in touch with contractors that are hiring. 

The recovery workforce is largely undocumented and lacks the kind of job stability, health care benefits, and labor protections that government employees receive. There are many documented instances of contractors or subcontractors threatening to call U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on undocumented workers in order to get out of paying them for their labor after a job is done. If a migrant worker is exposed to toxic chemicals or breaks an arm on the job, or worse, they have to pay for their own medical bills. When the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the U.S., contractors forced workers to risk their safety working in cramped conditions without adequate protective gear or COVID tests. 

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On Tuesday, U.S. Representative Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat from Washington state, introduced the Climate Resilience Workforce Act, the first federal effort to recognize these workers and provide them with health care, wage stability, and a path to citizenship, among other things. She crafted the bill in collaboration with nonprofit groups, chiefly an organization called Resilience Force, which was established by a group of laborers in the early 2000s in response to unfair labor practices in Louisiana post-Katrina. The act seeks to “create the decentralized, skilled, equitable workforce our nation needs to achieve climate resilience.” It’s cosponsored by 29 Democrats in the House. 

In addition to establishing basic rights for resilience workers, the act would create an Office of Climate Resilience in the White House, which would coordinate federal activities that relate to climate resilience and disaster recovery. It would create “millions of jobs” in the climate resilience sector by providing states, counties, cities, tribal governments, labor organizations, and community-based nonprofit organizations with new grants for climate resilience projects that offer workers a guaranteed wage, the right to organize, and healthcare. The bill would eliminate barriers to employment for formerly incarcerated people by awarding grants to contractors that prioritize hiring people with criminal records. It would establish a federal pilot program that would allow people who engaged in climate resilience labor while incarcerated in state prisons — for abysmally low hourly wages —  to obtain federal jobs in the same kind of work upon release. A similar initiative is underway in California right now, where the state is making it possible for formerly incarcerated wildland firefighters to get jobs in the state’s fire service when they get out of prison. 

“I could not believe that there wasn’t already a federal planning effort, an Office of Climate Resilience, given everything we’ve seen across the country,” Jayapal said at a panel discussion on Tuesday, citing last year’s hurricanes, wildfires, and tornados. “I hope that this bill is the beginning of a kind of framing of what a vision looks like to actually tackle climate resilience and turn it into an incredible opportunity.”

Saket Soni, cofounder and director of Resilience Force, told Grist that “there are hundreds of thousands of resilience workers, and it’s among the fastest-growing U.S. occupations.” But it’s unclear when those workers will get the protections they need, if ever. Jayapal’s act, which doesn’t have a price tag yet, will have to pass the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate before it can become law, which will be tough. States represented in Congress by Republicans benefit from undocumented labor in the aftermath of disasters, but Republican lawmakers frequently vote against efforts to invest more federal dollars in disaster management and relief. Plus, Republicans won’t be keen to create pathways to citizenship for undocumented workers. And there’s no saying how long Democrats will retain control of the House — Republicans are favored to take back the lower chamber later this year in the 2022 midterm elections, which could doom Jayapal’s bill if it doesn’t pass this Congress. 

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Still, the introduction of this act is a step forward for migrant, undocumented, and formerly incarcerated laborers who have been silently toiling in the nation’s disaster zones for at least a decade. “This bill is in a way the answer, the solution,” Soni said. “I can’t overstate how important it is to have this workforce.”

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