Interfaith Worker Justice

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Jeffrey Steele

Jeffrey Steele

Jeffrey Steele, an African American from Atlanta, wanted to be part of history in rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Responding to a flyer advertising “Free Room and Board, Free Food, Pay $10/hour,” he signed up with Work-force Development Corp, Inc., run by Carroll Harrison Braddy, and boarded a van to New Orleans in mid-October 2005. As it turned out, Braddy reneged on his flyers’ prom-ises. Steele’s first few days were particularly miserable: he received no food, he had to sleep in the van, and he was made to work long hours. A few weeks after arriving in New Orleans, he was finally fitted for an aspirator, a critical piece of health and safety equipment for all those involved in the cleanup and exposed to dangerous contaminants.

When Steele’s first paycheck was due, he calculated he was owed $1400, not even assuming any overtime pay (1.5 times the regular rate over 40 hours per week). But Braddy only paid him $230. By mid-November, Steele left Braddy’s employment and went to work for another cleanup firm called JNE where he was promised $18 per hour. After four weeks of very long hours (almost 100 hours per week), Steele estimated he was owed about $7000. He was initially paid $300 and then got another $1000. In January 2006, he started working for a third employer, with whom he stayed for nine months. This third employer paid him as an “exempt” salaried employee, even though he was probably legally eligible for overtime coverage (more on this issue later), which means he probably had wages stolen with this employee too. At the last New Orleans’ job he worked, Steele injured his hand, which then required surgery. He received no workers’ compensation for his injury, nor did his employer provide any medical insurance. In all, Steele had four employers in New Orleans—and all of them stole wages or workers’ compensation from him. In testimony before the Domestic Policy Subcommittee of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee on June 26, 2007 in New Orleans, Steele said,

I went to New Orleans to help and to be part of history. I did the dirty, hard work that was needed. Yet, I was exploited by contractor after contractor who crammed us into filthy living spaces, provided next to nothing to eat, offered practically no safety precautions or equipment and paid workers late and so much less than even promised. If this is how this country allows employers to get away with treating hard working citizens while companies make a profit—then shame on us. I’ve worked hard all my life and I pay taxes. I’m a United States citizen. I’ve been working since I was 9 years old. I’ve never been to jail and I’ve never asked the government for nothing. If another catastrophe happens in this country, I hope you never let anyone else treat workers and the people they are trying to help like they did in New Orleans.

Although wage theft was particularly bad in New Orleans immediately after Katrina, workers centers throughout the nation help thousands of workers annually who have had their wages stolen.