Reyna Martinez, a 30-year-old Honduran immigrant, wanted to help Texas recover from Hurricane Ike and earn a good wage at the same time.
For four weeks, she was transported by bus from her Houston home to Galveston, where she worked 15 hours a day repairing roofs, bailing water and clearing debris from school property.
She was promised $11 an hour, but after the first week, the owner reneged on paying workers. Martinez said many of her co-workers had no place to live and no meals, even though the employer had promised to provide both.
Advocates for workers say her story is not unusual: Hundreds of workers hired to clean up debris, repair damaged roofs and restore flood-soaked buildings say they were robbed of wages, stranded with nowhere to stay and injured on the job.
The pattern, first seen after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, is now being repeated in Houston and other Texas Gulf Coast cities ravaged by Ike, advocates say.
The complaints range from workers who were brought in from other cities and promised housing, then forced to sleep outdoors on concrete sidewalks to others who contracted skin and eye infections and rashes from working in contaminated buildings with no protective gear.
In addition, many workers say they have been victimized by employers who refused to pay wages or paid less than promised, said Laura Boston, an organizer with the Houston Interfaith Worker Justice Center.
"These workers helped clean up the city and helped it get back on its feet. For two or three weeks, they waded through contaminated water, or through flooded buildings, then they were abandoned," said Francisco Arguelles, the center's training coordinator.
The center, which advocates for the rights of low-wage workers, said it can take months to recover stolen wages in successful cases. In nine out of 10 cases, however, the wages are not recovered.
The center cited six post-Ike cases in which workers were denied hundreds of thousands of dollars in pay or left without lodging.
"We have seen people who are desperate. They couldn't buy food or medicine for their kids or parents," Arguelles said. "They are going to be evicted from apartments and sometimes have to decide between buying food or paying rent."
In some cases, the same employers cited for worker abuse in Katrina have also turned up in worker complaints in Texas, according to the center.
Late last month, the U.S. Department of Labor, hit with complaints about possible workplace violations after Ike struck Sept. 13, said it was investigating whether roofing subcontractors have been mistreating laborers.
Advocates say they have seen such abuses before. According to a report by Chicago-based Interfaith Worker Justice, workers who headed to New Orleans in 2005 to help rebuild the city after Katrina were abused and exploited.
The report, which surveyed 218 reconstruction workers in the summer of 2006, found that 47 percent reported they didn't receive all the pay they were entitled to and 55 percent said they received no overtime pay.
In Texas after Ike, one Florida-based company, Timberwood Carpentry, recruited 1,000 workers from Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia and Texas for cleanup work in Port Arthur, Galveston and Texas. It offered lodging, food, transportation and months of work, Boston said.
However, once workers got to Port Arthur, there were no hotel rooms. Instead, they had to sleep outside or in cars. About 160 workers reported wage theft, with a total of $121,681 in pay withheld from workers, according to the Houston Interfaith Worker Justice Center. Of that, only $35,770 has been recovered.
A message left with Timberwood Carpentry was not returned Tuesday.
Martinez, the Galveston worker, was employed by Timberwood and said that besides not getting all her wages, she also had an allergic reaction to the mold and bacteria rampant in a damaged school.
She said the workers were provided with gloves and masks but no protective clothing. Her employer refused to pay for medical treatment, she said.
Martinez eventually got most of her pay, although the contractor still owes her about $170 for a day's work. Most of her co-workers, however, had to leave without a penny.
"That's lost money. I have no hope of ever seeing it again," said Martinez, who now works cleaning house.
On the Net:
The Houston Interfaith Worker Justice Center: http://www.hiwj.org
Interfaith Worker Justice: http://www.iwj.org
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Copyright 2008 Associated Press