Religious leaders who back immigration reform say immigrant workers were exploited and mistreated during flood cleanup in eastern Iowa. The state’s labor commissioner says contractors were held to all the work related rules on the books.
The chaplain of Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, Reverend Catherine Quehl-Engel, says she observed mistreatment of workers hired by the One Source temp agency. Quehl-Engel says there were over 30 workers brought to the area from Kansas City on a bus, who were on the bus for 14 hours with no food. She says they were given debit cards with $15 a day for food, but the debit cards didn’t work for two or three days.
Quehl-Engel says the workers also faced tough working conditions. She says the people were sent out into "toxic filth" for 12 to 14 hour shifts seven days a week with little rest. Quehl-Engel says they also didn’t get tetanus shots, and had "less than adequate protective gear." Quehl-Engel says the workers were paid less than minimum wage until she and others mandated a five-page work contract demanding improvement.
Quehl-Engel says they did see improvement after confronting the supervisors. She says the temp agencies did comply with the contract, although they said they couldn’t comply with rest for 12 to 14 hour days because the workers had contracts with them. Quehl-Engel says that was a problem because the contracts were in English and most of the workers speak Spanish.
Quehl-Engel was joined on a media conference call along with Bishop Alan Scarfe, Episcopal Diocese of Iowa; Bishop Steven Ullestad, of the Northeastern Iowa Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; and Bishop Gregory Palmer, Iowa Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Radio Iowa talked with state labor commissioner David Neil, who says he looked into the concerns. Neil says there is no state or federal law that requires a certain number of square feet for people to sleep or rest, "There’s nothing we could do about that complaint, unfortunately, then again there’s no laws in the State of Iowa on hours worked, and what’s reasonable or anything like that. OSHA law has no limit on the amount of hours a person could be expected to work," Neil says.
Neil says the state was on the scene to be sure workers had the proper equipment to work in the flooded areas. Neil says OSHA representatives were in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City in an advisory capacity to tell people the type of protective equipment they should be wearing during cleanup, based on the reports from the religious leaders. Neil says they weren’t getting any complaints from the workers. He says the supervisors complied when asked to properly outfit workers.
Neil says in all cases, except for one in which they had a confrontation, the employers did provide the personal protective equipment needed to clean up the jobs they encountered. Neil says city and county leaders took action to ensure that contractors were not allowed to swoop into the flooded area and take advantage.
"I have to really commend Linn County and Cedar Rapids…they required that all the contractors be registered with the state as contractors, and even folks that are not required to be registered under state law, chose to register with us so that they could participate in the cleanup," Neil says. Neil says the registration requirement is something that should be always be done in these cases.
Neil says the registration requirement sent a message across the country, as he says his office got calls from Florida, Louisiana, Arkansas, Idaho, from people who wanted to know where they could go to work. Neil says, "Once you told them what all the regulations were as far as contractor regulation, you had to put a bond on file, a lot of those chose not to come."