Disaster Recovery Firm, Labor Advocates, Government Officials Meet, Sign Pact at Delgado

February 08, 2022

U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh appeared with city and state leaders in New Orleans Monday to tout the importance of supporting the workers who arrive in Louisiana and other states to rebuild following hurricanes and other disasters.

As natural disasters grow in frequency, severity and costliness, so too has an industry filled with recovery workers that labor advocates say are vulnerable to exploitation.

During a news event Monday at Delgado Community College with Mayor LaToya Cantrell, Gov. John Bel Edwards, U.S. Rep. Troy Carter, disaster-recovery businesses and labor advocates, Walsh said new industry standards are needed to ensure workers are treated fairly and that they are accurately counted as part of recent U.S. job gains.

“What’s not captured in those figures are people who are working in the shadows,” said Walsh, a former union official who joined the Biden administration after serving as the mayor of Boston.

As part of the event, officials cheered an agreement signed by Michigan-based Signal Restoration Services, a private firm that helps companies to restore operations after storms and other disasters, that could be the first step to getting other companies to agree to minimum workplace standards.

Signal pledged that it and and its subcontractors will pay a $15 minimum hourly wage, and that Signal will take punitive action against subcontractors who steal wages. Signal said it would ensure subcontractors follow health and safety laws.

Signal also agreed to donate $600,000 to Resilience Force. The nonprofit labor advocacy organization partnered with the city of New Orleans during the pandemic to create the New Orleans Resilience Corps, which has supported the New Orleans Health Department with citizen outreach on vaccines and other projects.

Resilience Force executive director, Saket Soni, also signed the agreement and said the money would be used for compliance and enforcement.

Soni said in a brief interview that there are likely hundreds of thousands of people in the "resilience workforce," but a lack of data makes it difficult to know for sure. Soni said advocates are pushing for a new code within the North American Industry Classification System, a system used by the federal government to track employment data by occupation.

“Part of the issue is that we don’t count them in America,” Soni said.

While it is difficult to tally the number of people working in disaster recovery, it is no doubt a growing industry. Natural disasters in the U.S. caused $427 billion in insured property losses over five years ending in 2021, more than double the previous five-year period, according to insurance firm Aon.

Mark Davis, the chief executive of Signal, said the partnership with Resilience Force was born after Category 4 Hurricane Laura, which devastated southwest Louisiana in 2020. Davis’s company hired 3,000 temporary workers, some of whom he learned from Soni had been exploited.

“Anyone that's affiliated with us going forward, these are the standards. They will sign on to them as well, or they won't do work with us,” Davis said.

The agreement also identifies New Orleans as one of four key locations — along with Detroit, the Miami area and Sonoma County, Calif. — to “establish training hubs and partnerships.”

Cantrell said Monday that there were plans in the works for a “resilience training center” in New Orleans East, and that the city had identified “potential (land) parcels” for the training center.

The administration did not respond to a request for additional information about the project, including a timeline, building specifications and who would operate it. 

Cantrell said the training center would build on the work of the Resilience Corps, which was funded by private foundations and employs residents in pandemic response jobs, such as wellness checks, contract tracing and door-to-door education campaigns.

New Orleans Resilience Corps workers are paid $12 hourly wages, with “a path” to making $18 per hour if they continue working, according to an October 2020 Rockefeller Foundation news release. The City Council has since raised the hourly minimum wage for city workers to $15.

A request for additional information concerning New Orleans Resilience Corps was pending on Monday afternoon.

Cantrell said the program had become a national model.

“Now (we have) the opportunity to scale it, so that again we can meet the needs of our residents here local, and throughout the United States of America,” Cantrell said. -- Ben Myers, The Times-Picayune, nola.com

Marty Walsh at Delgado
From left: New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell; Deputy U.S. Labor Secretary Julie Su; U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh; Resilience Force Executive Director Saket Soni discuss the disaster recovery industry at Delgado Community College on Feb. 7, 2022. (Photo by Frank Aymami, Delgado Communications and Marketing)