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Migrant workers already leaving Florida’s Hurricane Ian cleanup

They came to work after the disaster. But many are struggling to make ends meet.
Dozens of workers gather outside of a gas station in Fort Myers. Most of them are from Mexico and Central America.
Dozens of workers gather outside of a gas station in Fort Myers. Most of them are from Mexico and Central America. [ JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times ]
Published Nov. 11

CAPE CORAL — Joel Lopez was prepared to spend another year sleeping in his car.

His family was back in southeast Mexico. The work was here, in the waterside homes thick with the smell of mold begging to be torn off walls and backyards where uprooted lanai screens wilted into swimming pools.

Lopez, who does not have permanent legal status, had driven to Fort Myers from Houston. It was the latest stop on a career of chasing natural disasters across the United States.

In his experience, he could make far more money cleaning the destruction wrought by Hurricane Ian than he could in a regular construction job in Arkansas, where he’d first landed in the country 10 years ago. The payoff would be worth another 12 months of back pain.

Jose Guadalupe Mendoza, 32, wasn’t convinced.

This was his first time doing emergency cleanup. How many more days like yesterday could he take?

It had been a particularly hard day for retirees Debbie and Rick Bautista as well. Their Cape Coral home needed to be gutted after falling prey to Ian’s storm surge.

The couple’s lives were about to collide with Lopez and Guadalupe Mendoza’s in a manner that has become increasingly common after natural disasters strike the United States. Migrant laborers, many of whom lack permanent legal status, travel from all over the country to clean up properties ravaged in their wake.

Storm survivors often are unaware of the conditions under which these laborers toil — even as they rip out moldy drywall and unclog flooded toilets inside their homes.

But in the wake of Hurricane Ian, many migrant laborers are leaving Florida almost as soon as they arrive, to the chagrin of retirees who are relying on them for repairs.

“I know what the political climate is like in this state now,” said Rick Bautista. “But we need people.”

Joel Lopez, an immigrant worker from Mexico, made his own way to Fort Myers to clean up properties. He's sleeping in his truck to save money. Lopez said many workers have left Florida because contractors aren't paying fair wages.
Joel Lopez, an immigrant worker from Mexico, made his own way to Fort Myers to clean up properties. He's sleeping in his truck to save money. Lopez said many workers have left Florida because contractors aren't paying fair wages. [ JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times ]

‘I came to earn money’

From Ground Zero after 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina, the United States often relies on migrant labor after catastrophes, according to Sergio Chavez, a sociology professor at Rice University who studies immigrant workers who trail natural disaster sites.

“Some guys have been doing this work for 20, 30 years,” he said. “It’s a professional occupation — but they often don’t feel like they get treated like it is.”

In Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis recently used state money to charter 50 Venezuelan asylum seekers on private flights from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, the political rhetoric often implies the state is an unwelcome place for immigrants who lack permanent legal status.

Related: What to know about DeSantis’ migrant flights to Martha’s Vineyard

But many Sunshine State businesses in the agricultural and construction sectors rely on migrants for hard-to-fill jobs. Immigrant laborers also played a key role in the restoration of Florida after Hurricanes Irma and Michael.

Though the work often is dangerous and grueling, the practice of trailing storms for work is expected to grow in popularity as climate change makes hurricanes more threatening.

But to Daniel Castellanos, this cleanup felt different.

Last week, the 51-year-old, who participated in the restoration after Katrina, said goodbye to a group of laborers from Maryland who had arrived just days before.

They had searched for bodies in the wreckage of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, they told him. But this job wasn’t worth it.

“They’re going back because they’re paid too low,” said Castellanos, now director of workforce engagement at Resilience Force, a nonprofit that advocates for disaster laborers.

Jose Guadalupe Mendoza, 32, doesn’t know if pay is worse than usual in Ian’s cleanup, as some storm veterans say, or if the political climate has influenced work.
Jose Guadalupe Mendoza, 32, doesn’t know if pay is worse than usual in Ian’s cleanup, as some storm veterans say, or if the political climate has influenced work. [ JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times ]

Like many of the hundreds who huddled in the dark outside a Fort Myers Sunoco that morning, waiting to rush the first car that drove up offering work, Mendoza was drawn to southwest Florida by the promise of higher pay than the typical jobs available in Austin.

He and three other Texas workers paid $700 a week to share a room in a nearby motel — barely more than they were earning.

“I’m disappointed,” Guadalupe Mendoza, a married father of two, said in Spanish. “In Texas, I have a job and my own business. I came to earn money, not to beg.”

Some workers, like Lopez, save by sleeping in vehicles. But they must still confront other costs of living. Lopez pays $14 to shower three times a week at a gas station near the parking lot where he spends his nights.

Waterlogged mattresses and fiberglass still line streets in Fort Myers and Cape Coral. Many people are living in shelters or homes of relatives while their houses remain uninhabitable. There’s plenty of cleanup left.

It’s not jobs, but pay, that’s unreliable, Ian restoration workers said.

Related: A month after Hurricane Ian skirted Tampa Bay, storm debris remains. Here’s why.

Wage issues

Debbie and Rick Bautista, ages 65 and 73, had returned from sheltering in Pennsylvania a week before to find their Cape Coral home caked in mildew after floodwater stormed their property.

Before Ian, the canal-side house was valued at over $850,000. Now, the walls needed to be stripped.

They’d hired a crew and were prepared to watch as workers tossed possessions accrued over their three decades.

It had been an emotional day, even before they were thrown into a wage dispute.

Someone was holding a phone out to Rick Bautista’s face. It was close to sunset on Oct. 25, and evening couldn’t come soon enough.

Drywall had been stripped from nearly every room in the house. Piles of ruined furniture stood taller than him in their front lawn. Bautista had listened to longtime neighbors drive past and hurl insults at the workers, asking if they had green cards.

Suddenly, one of the men was handing him his cell. Bautista could hear a stern voice on the other line.

The man on the phone — who turned out to be Castellanos, the organizer — told Bautista that wage theft was illegal.

Reports of wage theft are common in disaster recovery, according to Chavez. In one survey of migrant roofers, one in five people said an employer had promised money that they hadn’t paid.

The threat of deportation can make this class of worker particularly vulnerable, said Lisette Sánchez, a Tampa immigration attorney.

During Irma’s cleanup, 18 construction laborers sued a Houston-based restoration company, over alleged wage theft. Workers said that when they asked about the unpaid wages, employers threatened to call immigration authorities, according to the complaint. The company eventually settled, paying the workers a total of $50,000.

But outside his home that day, Bautista said he had no idea what the man on the phone was talking about. He’d merely hired a company for a job. Didn’t they set the rates for their employees?

Rick and Debbie Bautista, 73 and 65, outside their Cape Coral home on Oct. 26, 2022.
Rick and Debbie Bautista, 73 and 65, outside their Cape Coral home on Oct. 26, 2022. [ Hannah Critchfield ]

Bautista learned there was a dispute about how much Zenith Disaster Cleanup, the company on site, was supposed to pay the laborers for the day, according to Bautista and three workers who were there — including Lopez and Guadalupe Mendoza.

The workers said they were promised $200 each; now, the company wanted to pay them half that. Zenith’s supervisor was asking them to work until 8 p.m., Lopez and Guadalupe Mendoza said, but the man who recruited them for the job had said their shift would end earlier.

The gulf that separates migrant laborers from homeowners with storm damage isn’t just circumstantial, as people without permanent addresses repair million-dollar homes.

A property owner may hire a company to repair their house. But this company may rely on another one to hire laborers for the project.

Such nesting-doll structures of hiring can make it difficult to know who’s responsible, or who to turn to, when pay disagreements arise.

“Part of the problem is that it’s informal,” Chavez said. “So you hire somebody else, who hires somebody else. There’s no written record of what was promised, and no outline of how the workday would go. So you have very little oversight, and you can easily play dumb and just basically say, ‘Well, I didn’t know that.’”

A spokesperson for Zenith Disaster Cleanup said in an emailed statement that it had relied on another company to hire workers for its Florida projects after Ian. They did not provide the name of this company, however.

The spokesperson said that the workers had taken hour-long breaks without permission. Then, at about 5 p.m., the Zenith supervisor reported that the laborers stopped work on the home, the spokesperson said.

“Workers were told they were going to be paid for the hours they initially worked, not the work day,” the spokesperson wrote. “At Zenith we work 10-hour days or until the job is done. No hours were discussed upon start of job, only pay.”

They added that the company did not know the workers lacked permanent legal status.

Ultimately, Bautista said he spoke to Zenith on the workers’ behalf — negotiating up to $175 for the day’s labor.

“The interest I had is to see that these people are taken care of,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if I like them or not, they worked hard. And there was a deal between them and someone else. So morally, I had an obligation.”

Dozens of day laborers gather outside of a gas station in Fort Myers. Most of them are from Mexico and Central America.
Dozens of day laborers gather outside of a gas station in Fort Myers. Most of them are from Mexico and Central America. [ JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times ]

Guadalupe Mendoza didn’t return to work at the Bautista house the next day. The following week, he headed home.

Lopez stayed.

“People are leaving, but I’ll try to stay until the end,” Lopez said in Spanish. “I’m already here, and I spent $1,000 driving from Houston. But this should not be so hard.”

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