Cornell College’s chaplain joined faith leaders from across the state last week to talk about what they say has been worker exploitation and a disregard for immigrant families in Iowa. In a conference call with media from around the state, s they highlighted the issue in light of day-laborers in Iowa helping with Flood of 2008 recovery efforts and the May raid in Postville.
Christians For Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CCIR), patient a coalition of Christian organizations, convened the call.
The religious community is “taking the lead to shine a light on worker abuses,” said Patty Kupfer, manager of Partnerships with America’s Voice, an organization focused on increasing public and political support for immigration reform.
The Rev. Catherine Quehl-Engel, Cornell’s chaplain and an Episcopal priest, came face-to-face with immigration and labor issues in Mount Vernon the weekend the Flood of 2008 struck Iowa.
Quehl-Engel, who said she represents herself and not the college, spoke of the laborers who first spent nights in a Cornell dorm while helping with flood clean-up in Cedar Rapids and the Waterloo-Cedar Falls area. The workers, doing jobs for ServiceMaster, arrived June 15 and left June 22. Quehl-Engel said they were hired, many coming from Kansas City, by a temp agency known as SourceOne.
Quehl-Engel said she was “appalled by their ,” saying, for instance, that they were given debit cards for food that initially did not work, arrived without the proper gear to do their clean-up jobs, and started working without precautionary measures such as tetanus shots. She said workers reported not being paid minimum wage, and some said their paychecks had deductions for bus rides to work sites. When she and some Cornell College colleagues learned of such conditions, she said the business was presented and complied with a contract that, for instance, stipulated workers be paid minimum wage.
In fairness to the company that hired them, Quehl-Engel said the businesses were “overwhelmed” by the response needed to handle flood clean-up. Furthermore, she said they might have been treated better than other companies were treating their workers. Quehl-Engel said, for instance, that a person she met in Cedar Rapids, not with the business housing employees at Cornell, reported having to sleep under the bus that brought him to Cedar Rapids.
“These are the faces of Iowa’s flood crisis,” Quehl-Engel said.
Other religious leaders concurred. Also joining the call to media last week were Bi Alan Scarfe of the Episcopal Diocese of Iowa, Bi Steven L. Ullestad of Northeastern Iowa Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Bi Gregory Palmer of the Iowa Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, and Rev. Julia Rendon of the Iowa Conference of the United Church of Christ.
Scarfe said he and Palmer went to Cedar Rapids with Quehl-Engle, describing the flood-ravaged areas as “the belly of a beast” with bad smells, filth and noise. He said one man they talked to, brought to Cedar Rapids to work, “actually thought he was in Chicago.”
Scarfe said the message from the religious leaders is, “you’re not going to get away with this.” He urges legislation to “bring decency” to immigrants and those brought here to help Iowa clean up.
The religious leaders also addressed labor issues in light of the May 12 raid at AgriProcessors in Postville. Ullestad, who grew up in Postville, said religious leaders in Postville described the raid as an “invasion” with roads closed, military-style helicopters flying overhead, and federal agents heavily armed. He said Postville will likely lose one-third of its population due to the raid.
Ullestad pointed out that only 5,000 immigrants without college degrees are allowed into the country each year, but that there’s a need for 10 times that many workers. That led to general discussion about the immigration changes religious leaders believe need to be made.
Palmer said some may wonder why religious leaders are addressing the issue when “you are not experts.”
He said their faith means caring for the most vulnerable and that they want to “lower the level of fear…that exists in any community.”
Quehl-Engel said she would like to see legislation that requires companies to be held accountable for the actions of any contractors they use to do their work.
Rendon said it’s “really a shame when our regulations and standards are ignored until casual passersby notice they’re being violate. We should not be depending on the good will of people whose job it is not to enforce (labor laws).”
Rep. Ro Foege, a Democrat from Mount Vernon, stepped in to help when questions about the of workers were raised in his community. He said when allegations were made that laborers weren’t being paid minimum wage, he called the labor commissioner.
He said he understands there are other concerns, such as workers being on the job for 15 or more hours a day. Unfortunately, he said, Iowa is an “at-will state,” and “if you want people to work 15 hours a day, you can if you get them to agree to it.”
The state will likely have a special legislative session to address flood-related issues. Foege said it’s unlikely the labor/immigration issues raised will be discussed.
But, he said he recognizes immigration matters need to be addressed by the state.
“It’s a huge, complex issue nationwide,” he said.