The following op-ed originally appeared on the New York Times.
Nobody knows what kind of large-scale disaster will next hit the New York City region, but you can be sure that after the initial chaos will come the mess. And as Hurricane Sandy taught us, some of the hardest and most dangerous jobs fell not to first responders — cops, firefighters or utility crews — but to homeowners and small contractors left to improvise the cleanup and demolition and to the thousands of day laborers who joined them.
Day laborers are members of an informal, usually immigrant, work force that is well suited to relief and reconstruction, but often overlooked until disasters hit. A report released last week by researchers at Baruch College, just over a year after Sandy, examines their role in the aftermath of events like Sandy and 9/11. It notes that disasters bring them steadier work and higher wages, but also a greater risk of injury and exploitation.
Day laborers are routinely abused in their everyday jobs, and the speed and intensity of post-disaster cleanups, plus exposure to mold, asbestos and other dangerous debris, makes things worse. Beyond the physical hazards lie the dangers of wage theft and other abuse by employers, who often silence immigrant workers with threats of deportation.
This was the case on a huge scale on the Gulf Coast, after Hurricane Katrina, where the work was plentiful but conditions brutal. The researchers, echoing calls by immigrant advocates, note that day laborers and day-labor hiring centers already play a prominent role in disaster recovery — from New Jersey to the Rockaways, day-labor brigades did heroic work after Sandy, often as volunteers. But these workers were not part of official disaster plans. Efforts to give them safety equipment — gloves, masks, safety glasses — were ad hoc.
The next mayoral administration should work with federal, state and local agencies and nonprofit organizations to provide day laborers with disaster training, and to make day-labor-hiring sites into places where information and protective gear can be distributed. During the mayoral campaign, Bill de Blasio called for enlisting volunteers to protect public-housing tenants in Sandy-like crises. That wise idea — organizing the response for after the first responders move out — applies to day laborers, too.