Many Who Rebuilt New Orleans After Katrina Are Victims Of Wage Theft


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The parking lot of Lowe’s Home Improvement in the St. Roch neighborhood of New Orleans is much like the parking lot of other big-box building-supply stores across the country. The curb near the exit is what Latino day laborers call an esquina, or “corner,” where they congregate and wait for contractors with drywalls to install, or suburban dads with junk that needs hauling. Beginning at dawn, people with jobs of all sizes drive up to these corners and select workers to perform difficult manual labor for below minimum wage, or specialized work for as much as $15 an hour.
One humid evening in May around sunset, a few dozen men, most of them from Honduras and Mexico, are cracking beers and socializing around quitting time. A smaller group squats around a dusk-lit game of small-stakes craps.
Lurking on the outskirts of the game and sipping a soda is David Solomon Vasquez, an ebullient 24-year-old Honduran wearing a Dodgers cap. Vasquez has been coming to this corner since the age of 14, when he joined thousands of other Latino workers in a mass migration to the city in the roiling wake of the flood that followed Hurricane Katrina, a Category 3 storm when it hit the Big Easy. Asked about his decade in New Orleans, Vasquez first recalls the horrors of the early days, when the detritus he removed from homes included water-bloated corpses. “Even months later, you’d find a lot of bodies,” says Vasquez. “In one attic we found an old lady and a young boy, her grandson. They were trying to escape the water, but it got them. Even after they removed the bodies, the smell stayed for days.”
The hanging stench of death proved a temporary aspect of post-Katrina New Orleans. Vasquez goes on to describe a more enduring feature of life for those who cleaned up and then rebuilt the Crescent City: rampant wage theft. Early in his tenure here, Vasquez learned that contractors could not be trusted like the contractors in Nevada, his first stop after leaving home. As the 10th anniversary of Katrina approached, Vasquez rattles off stories of employers cheating him out of his wages. Many of these stories involve threats of violence, including one from just the month before.
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