A Nov. 4 article about companies in the Gulf Coast not being paid for cleanup work mischaracterized the relationship between United Disaster Relief and the Halliburton Co. United Disaster Relief is a subcontractor of another company that has subcontracted with a Halliburton subsidiary. United Disaster Relief was not a subcontractor of a company controlled by Halliburton. (Published 11/8/2005)
Two months after the government began allotting billions of dollars for disaster relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, subcontractors in the Mississippi Gulf Coast say they are not being paid. As a result, they say, they cannot pay their workers, who are mostly immigrant laborers and who have painted homes, removed debris and completed other salvage chores.
Over the past two days, the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance, or MIRA, has prepared complaints on behalf of more than 150 immigrant workers, both legal and illegal, and submitted them to the Labor Department. The complaints are asking the department to compel at least five subcontractors in Gulfport, Biloxi and other gulf areas to compensate the workers for as much as $100,000 in unpaid work.
The allegations came to light during a forum on Katrina-related immigrant abuse, held by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights in Washington last week. Activists said immigrants were living in tents and crowding bus stations to leave the Gulf Coast because they had not been paid. Others are staying on, hoping that pay will come.
"They're rebuilding the coast at the expense of immigrant labor, and everybody's washing their hands over who's responsible for the payment," said Victoria Cintra of MIRA. "The abuse that happens down here is atrocious, sickening. I'm not saying everybody's bad. I'm talking about ruthless contractors."
The complaints prepared by MIRA named five subcontractors: Luna's Painting Service of Pharr, Tex.; Brothers Innovative Painting of Thomasville, Ga.; Wade Roofing and Construction of Mobile, Ala.; New Look of Pascagoula, Miss.; and KTC Services, a debris removal company based in Seven Springs, N.C.
Karen Tovar, owner of KTC Services, acknowledged that she could not pay about 80 workers she had employed, noting, "There's nothing I can do until I get paid."
Tovar said she is owed $130,000 for yard cleanup and debris removal by a company called United Disaster Relief, whose manager, Zachary Johnson, said he also has not been paid in two months. Johnson said he is a subcontractor of a company controlled by Halliburton Co., which was awarded a no-bid contract for disaster relief work by the Bush administration.
"It's very chaotic down here," Tovar said. "I've been in the business for 11 years, and I never had this happen before, and I hope I never have a situation like this again. I don't know what's going on with Halliburton."
Johnson said Tovar's payroll problems were self-made. He said disaster subcontractors often go unpaid by larger contractors for months. Johnson said he told Tovar when he hired her that she needed to have enough money to pay her workers even if she was not compensated.
"I'm over a million dollars in the hole," he said. "I expect that. I feel sorry for the guys that Karen has done this. She couldn't feed her men. I gave her $40,000 out of my pocket. I decided that I would not hire her again."
Rubin Morin, owner of Brothers Innovative Painting, said that he has not been paid by his prime contractor but that he has paid his workers. "That allegation is not true. I have canceled checks for the person that shows he has been paid in full," he said. He also disputed the number of workers who are part of the complaint against him, saying he does not recognize some of the names.
Another subcontractor -- Joe Luna of Luna's Painting Service -- did not return phone calls seeking a comment. Steve B. McQueen, owner of New Look said he had nothing to say. A fifth contractor named in the complaint, Wade Roofing and Construction, could not be reached.
Spokesmen for the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which oversees about $50 billion in hurricane relief, said they were unaware that subcontractors and workers were not being paid. The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, which hired contractors for debris removal, did not respond to a request for a comment.
Tamara Faulkner, a spokeswoman for the inspector general's office at DHS, which is responsible for overseeing more than 100 disaster relief contracts, said the issue has not been mentioned in reports.
The complaints are the latest in a series of bad news for immigrants caught up in ruin wrought by Katrina. The Department of Homeland Security announced in September that illegal immigrants could be deported if they seek government aid. Later, the Bush administration announced that it was relaxing the rules requiring employers to confirm the legal status of their workers. As a result, activists say, companies could hire more undocumented workers. About the same time, President Bush suspended a law that requires employers who get federal contracts to pay workers the local prevailing wage.
Under pressure from civil rights groups, unions and members of Congress, Bush lifted the suspension recently. But two months had passed, Cintra said, and some subcontractors had already lured laborers to the Gulf Coast with promises that they would be housed, fed and paid at least $7 an hour. She said many employers did not deliver on that promise, forcing some workers to live in tents or go to American Red Cross shelters.
A spokeswoman for the Red Cross in south Mississippi, Mary Lee Conwell, confirmed Cintra's allegation. "They're getting promised the moon and stars by contractors . . . but their version of housing and feeding is to put them on a bus and drop them off at a Red Cross shelter."
Red Cross officials, struggling to provide housing to victims of the hurricane, provided housing for several days but eventually asked the workers to leave, Conwell said.
"I wish there was some way to pursue contractors who are taking advantage of the Red Cross and the workers, especially the non-English-speaking ones," Conwell said.