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Society and Community:
Katrina: The Response
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Labor, Laws and Immigrants in the Delta South

Thousands of immigrant workers are being lured into New Orleans to help rebuild the city after Hurricane Katrina. Some observers worry that the local workforce is being shut out when immigrants accept low pay and no benefits. Others worry that the suspension of some federal labor laws have leads to exploitation and unsafe conditions for those bringing the city back to life.

The Issue of Prevailing Wages

Among the most contentious labor issues that arose in the wake of Hurricane Katrina was President Bush's decision to suspend the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires that wages for workers on federal construction contracts, and most federally assisted construction projects, be paid the prevailing local wage. The White House argued that suspending the act would save many millions during the rebuilding efforts. Critics contended that suspension opened up the way for labor abuse and undercut the local workforce.

The Davis-Bacon Act dates from 1931, when it was designed in part to keep higher wage jobs in the hands of white workers instead of the cheaper labor of African-American and other migratory workers during the Depression. As the American work world changed, some critics of Davis-Bacon charge that the Act serves mostly to keep union pay rates predominant.

The Davis-Bacon Act has been suspended three times before the Katrina crisis. In 1934, Franklin Roosevelt suspended the act for three weeks in order to manage changes in the opening days of the New Deal. Richard Nixon suspended the act for 28 days in February 1971 in efforts to reduce inflation pressures. Davis-Bacon was indefinitely suspended by George H.W. Bush suspended the Davis-Bacon Act during the recovery from Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Bill Clinton re-instated the act in March of 1993.

In early November 2005, "pro-labor Republicans" met with White House Chief of Staff to make the case for the reinstatement of Davis-Bacon with relations to Katrina rebuilding contracts. President Bush restored Davis-Bacon in November 8, 2005. Read the Department of Labor's Employment Standards Administration Wage and Hour Division's "Guidance on the Suspension of the Davis-Bacon and Related Acts in Areas Impacted by Hurricane Katrina."

The Issue of Citizenship

Latino immigrants are forming a large part of the workforce laboring to rebuild the Gulf Coast. Indeed, the Department of Homeland Security temporarily suspended citizenship documentation requirements for the hurricane area. Even though the requirements were re-instated on October 25, 2005, a public discussion over the role of undocumented workers on the Gulf Coast has ensued on the floors of Congress.

As NOW has documented over the past few years, the question of immigration reform is one of the most hotly debated in the nation. And on the issue of immigration and labor costs — party lines become blurred. Learn more about President Bush's immigration reform plans, and proposed alternatives from The Immigration Debate.

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