The Green New Deal Should Help Workers Already Hit by Climate Change

Nathaniel Levy

Nathaniel Levy is a student at Harvard Law School and a member of the Labor and Employment Lab.

You don’t need to read through much of the Green New Deal (GND) to appreciate the scale of the change it seeks. Section (1)(a) of the non-binding resolution, introduced on February 7, declares that the federal government has a duty to “achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions through a fair and just transition for all communities and workers.” Investing in green jobs and strengthening labor unions are core components of the GND’s vision for that transition. So too is ensuring that investment in the green economy benefits “frontline” communities, which include low-income workers and communities of color.

Deliberately broad and ambitious, the GND is an open invitation for ideas that can translate principles into policy. As Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the GND’s co-sponsors, tweeted, “Think of the GND Res as a ‘Request for Proposals.’” In response, this post argues that the GND’s commitment to jobs and labor generally ought to include policies that better protect the frontline workers already being hit hard by climate change. Transitioning to a greener and less unequal economy is a worthy long-term goal; protecting those who perform recovery or cleanup work after natural disasters, or who live in affected areas, is imperative right now.

Natural disasters, also referred to as extreme weather events, strain the social safety net for workers or exacerbate the exploitation of low-wage workers in at least three ways.

For one, recent hurricanes have exposed failings in the federal disaster assistance program designed to complement state-based unemployment insurance. The Disaster Unemployment Assistance (DUA) program is a cooperative federal-state safety net program that provides financial relief to qualifying recipients living in official disaster areas who are (1) out of work for at least one week after a declared disaster, (2) ineligible for state-based unemployment insurance, and (3) whose unemployment is “caused by a major disaster.” Undocumented workers are ineligible. The federal government funds the program; states administer it and set the payments. Journalists have documented serious procedural glitches in how Florida and Texas implemented the program after hurricanes Irma and Harvey, respectively, in 2017. Texas’s state agency was “unprepared for the deluge of claims.” Well into 2018, Florida and the federal Department of Labor disagreed about the number of eligible applicants who actually received payments.

Second, frontline workers often face serious health and safety risks while performing disaster cleanup work. This trend is not new. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, researchers from Berkeley, Tulane, and Harvard surveyed hundreds of construction workers in New Orleans about their work experiences in the months right after the storm. The survey found that over a quarter of respondents had worked with harmful substances or in dangerous conditions. Further, documented workers received warnings from employers about mold, asbestos, and unsafe buildings at higher rates than undocumented workers. Flash forward to the $1.3 billion effort to rebuild and clean up the ash, waste, and toxic debris produced by the Northern California wildfires of 2017. KQED identified numerous reports of workers who lacked adequate safety gear, and described a fragmented and weak regime for enforcing compliance with workplace safety standards on myriad contractors and subcontractors. The details of post-disaster work vary by event—hurricane cleanup comes with different occupational hazards than wildfire recovery—but the overall pattern is clear: too little training and enforcement for too much risk. Further, undocumented disaster-relief workers are especially vulnerable, as they are less likely to report abuses.

Third, low-wage workers who perform post-disaster manual labor experience high levels of wage theft. Respondents in the above-mentioned study of construction workers in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina reported working an average of 57 hours per week in the months after the storm, but less than one-third reported getting paid overtime. When employers did pay overtime, they did not always pay at 1.5 the normal pay rate. Employers also frequently “deducted expenses” from paychecks. In reflecting on post-Katrina New Orleans, the founders of the Workplace Justice Project in New Orleans have explained that while labor exploitation in the city was not categorically different before or after the storm, it was “quite egregious” afterwards. 12 years later, day laborers doing construction, cleanup, demolition, and related jobs suffered similar abuses in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 storm that struck Houston in late August 2017. About a month later, researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago surveyed 361 day laborers, many of whom were immigrants, to ask about their post-storm work experiences. 26 percent of respondents reported being victims of wage theft in the month after the storm. Even more notably, the survey collected reports of 90 incidents of wage theft in that first month, and 170 in year preceding the survey. The results thus imply that the incidence of wage theft was higher after the storm than before. Although there is not yet definitive proof that natural disasters exacerbate wage theft (understandably so—conducting field studies of workers in disaster areas is difficult), existing studies suggest that they do, and also highlight the need for better data collection and enforcement.

The social costs of post-disaster labor exploitation and of the DUA program’s shortcomings ought to be understood as a downstream cost of climate change. Focusing lawmakers’ attention on the concrete connections between climate change and workers’ rights could pay off in different ways. On the one hand, the GND could actually generate the kind of massive, across-the-board labor and employment law reforms to which the resolution aspires. But even if that doesn’t happen, and lawmakers pursuing climate legislation advance a less ambitious labor agenda, more narrowly scoped proposals that expressly connect the experiences of low-wage workers in post-disaster zones to climate change could still have political purchase.

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