New Orleans rebuilds as tensions rise

Influx of Latino workers has local businesses and contractors feeling left out


NEW ORLEANS -- Inside the Sheraton Hotel downtown, weary politicians promised a throng of Louisiana entrepreneurs that local firms would resurrect this tattered city.

But outside, rebuilding was already underway. Latino workers from beyond Louisiana's borders were busy doing the dirty work: disinfecting mold-infested restaurants, mopping up dingy hotel rooms and clearing mountains of stinking trash from the French Quarter streets.

Typically invisible in most American cities, these workers have suddenly been thrust into the spotlight of New Orleans reconstruction. In recent weeks, the influx of Latino laborers in a city that is about 3 percent Hispanic has caused friction in a place already known for its black-white racial tensions.

Hurricane Katrina uncovered the latent tensions of race and class in a city that is predominantly black and where nearly a quarter of its residents live in poverty. And now, civil rights groups and some politicians around the country are closely eyeing the rebuilding process, concerned that the advantaged few will reap the profits, and when they are finished, New Orleans will have purged the poor.

The addition of Latino workers from elsewhere, both legal permanent residents and undocumented immigrants, has added a layer of complexity to the debate. Now some worry that city residents - regardless of race - are being passed over for work in favor of outsiders. In addressing business owners and contractors during a "Back to Business" forum at the Sheraton last week, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said aloud what others had only whispered among themselves:

"I can see in your eyes, you want to know, `How do I take advantage of this incredible opportunity? How do I make sure New Orleans is not overrun with Mexican workers.'"

The packed ballroom erupted in applause.

Meanwhile, laborers such as Jesus Ortiz, 35, were stung by Nagin's comments.

"Well, is he going to get down on his hands and knees and clean like these women come here to do?" Ortiz said with sarcasm.

Ortiz, who is originally from Mexico, left his wife and two children at home in Houston and set out for New Orleans just two days after Katrina struck. A janitorial firm hired him in Houston, promising $10 an hour, but when he arrived in New Orleans, his boss offered only $8, he said. Ortiz sought work elsewhere and is now pleased to be earning $10 an hour with New Orleans-based Ramelli Janitorial Service.

"In a way what he [Nagin] said upsets me, and in a way it doesn't," Ortiz said. "I come here and try to work as hard as I can so I can take care of my family. I just do the job. That's what everyone's getting paid for."

The work is grueling and hazardous. Downtown is teeming with workers wearing white protective suits who have been doing everything from removing sheet rock to clearing flooded rooms smothered in mold. Ramelli employees typically work 10 hours a day, rarely taking days off.

"The people who come here to clean have to deal with all kinds of disgusting stuff - it's maggot-infested; there are dead animals; it's awful," Ortiz said. "But they are doing this for the good of their families."

Immigrant advocates charge that Latino workers have been exploited by some employers. The Bush Administration temporarily waived the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires contractors to pay at least the regional minimum wage.

No one knows how many Latino workers are in the area, but anecdotal accounts show many have been hired by staffing companies from around the country.

Pete Bell, co-owner of Cotton, a Houston-based industrial cleaning company, said that of his firm's estimated 400 workers in New Orleans, about half are Latino. Cotton used staffing companies nationwide to hire employees, about 75 percent of whom are from outside New Orleans, Bell estimated.

"In my mind, everyone's forgetting the basic issue. What we are trying to accomplish here is getting this city back on line," he said. "When everyone evacuated the city, you could not get local labor. So there are people working from all over the country and all over the world."

Bell said he hasn't heard complaints of workers being mistreated or being paid less than promised.

"Cotton's philosophy is, `we never mess with a man's pay,'" he said. "I can assure you that we believe in a fair wage. We make sure people are being taken care of."

Meanwhile, minority business groups argue that small, minority-owned firms have missed out on the bounty. They criticized the Federal Emergency Management Agency for initially waiving competition rules and awarding about $132 million in no-bid contracts to four large corporations.

As of Wednesday, about 1.3 percent of the $2.3 billion in FEMA contracts had gone to minority-owned firms. And 91 percent of FEMA contracts have gone to firms outside Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, according to data released earlier this month from the Department of Homeland Security.

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