Today’s News & Commentary — September 11, 2017

Vivian Dong

Vivian Dong is a student at Harvard Law School.

The back-to-back storms, Hurricane Harvey and Irma, have strained the U.S. pool of rescue workers.  The workers are not limited to first responders employed by government agencies or non-profits dedicated specifically to natural disasters.  Over 70 members of the Los Angeles Fire Department are set out to work on Hurricane Irma relief right after an intense two-week effort in the Houston area in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, where they conducted rescues, inspected homes, and assisted with the ongoing cleanup.  The Salvation Army had to move workers from from the Houston area to Florida once Irma hit.  However, now that floodwaters in Houston have receded, the types of workers required have changed.  People now need caseworkers, engineers, and others to help assess and fix infrastructure damage as part of the recovery effort.

Day laborers, many of whom are illegal immigrants, have been able to charge top dollar for contract work in the Hurricane Harvey recovery effort.  The Christian Science Monitor reported the scene at a Houston Home Depot in the days after Hurricane Harvey: motorists were driving through the parking lot making cash offers for various jobs to a congregation of day laborers, many of whom had already left by mid-morning for jobs accepted earlier.  Generally, the workers were settling for $120 to $150 to clear homes of storm-wrought debris for eight hours.  Day laborers anticipate that they will be flush with work for some time given the scale of Harvey’s wreckage.  Construction workers were already scarce in Texas before the storm, with most contractors reporting that they struggled to find willing workers.  Despite the high demand for their labor, the small-scale, contract nature of the work, and many workers’ lack of documentation, heightens the risk that many such day laborers will be exploited through lack of compensation and unsafe working conditions.

Meanwhile, utility repair workers were rushing to Florida over the weekend to work on damage anticipated to be caused by Hurricane Irma, which threatens Florida’s electric grid far more than Hurricane Harvey had threatened Houston’s.  Florida Power & Light, which houses Florida’s biggest power company, has deployed only unionized utility repair contractors. The contractors are expected to make $50 an hour normally, $75 an hour in overtime, and $100 an hour on Sundays.

On Sunday, the New York Times published an article on the work dynamics of the human workers and robots at Amazon.  Amazon’s warehouses are increasingly automated, with robots performing many of the repetitive lifting and moving functions that its employees once performed.  However, Amazon still employs far more workers than its peer tech giants—three times as many as Microsoft and 18 times as many as Facebook.  The scale of both its work force and its robotics fleet has made Amazon an interesting case study on the impact of automation.

Enjoy OnLabor’s fresh takes on the day’s labor news, right in your inbox.