Latino Labor

Mixed bag for N.O.’s Hispanic work force
by Richard A. Webster

Gemder Vaz smooths the exterior of an Uptown home before applying a stucco finish.
(photo by Frank Aymami)

Few groups played as important a role in the recovery of New Orleans as the Hispanic work force that arrived in the city just weeks after Hurricane Katrina, hammers and sleeping bags in hand, eager to take advantage of the post-storm construction boom.

But now that the national economy is in the tank and recovery construction has slowed, will the day laborers abandon the city?

Not likely, said Jon Luther, president of the Home Builders Association of Greater New Orleans.

The New Orleans construction industry may not be booming like it was in the year after Katrina, but it also isn’t in a freefall like the rest of the country.

“The Hispanic workers aren’t leaving anytime soon because as slow as someone might think it is here, it’s just gruesome out there in the rest of the country,” Luther said.

Two weeks ago, Luther attended a conference in Sanibel, Fla., that brought together the heads of local and state homebuilders associations from throughout the country. Colleagues from California, Florida, Arizona and Minnesota said their membership was down 70 percent.

“They’re hemorrhaging members because there isn’t any work out there,” Luther said. “David Ellis, the head of the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association, told me it’s so bad that four of his members committed suicide. So while we may be moving in fits and spurts, what’s going on in the rest of the country is really tragic.”

That said, the number of Hispanic workers in New Orleans has decreased dramatically because the jobs are no longer there, said Fred Yoder, president of Durr Heavy Construction in Harahan.

The post-storm construction boom that insulated New Orleans companies from the national economic downturn is coming to an end. The pace of work has slowed significantly since 2006 when reconstruction activity was at its height and the demand for day laborers greatest.

Billions in promised federal recovery dollars and large-scale public projects have yet to get off the ground, forcing construction companies to stop hiring or shift to layoff mode, Yoder said.

“I think many of the Hispanic workers are going to go where the work is and that’s where the storms hit,” Yoder said. “I think we have already seen an exodus of the Hispanic work force moving to Galveston. There are still some here, but the Hispanics we talk to are struggling like everybody else. We don’t have enough work to keep them busy so they’re going to go where they need to in order to support their families.”

Their options, however, are limited to a handful of areas that haven’t been hit hard by the faltering economy, such as Salt Lake City; Beaumont, Texas; and Syracuse, N.Y., Luther said.

“We’re talking about really random places. But one thing is true — here in New Orleans the need right now for a large supply of day laborers is not as great compared to the 11 months after Katrina. But I don’t think everybody will flow over to places like Galveston because a lot of the Hispanic folks who relocated here after Katrina have made roots. And they’re savvy enough to know that we have huge growth potential. There aren’t a lot of places that can say that.”

Fernando Arriola, president of the Kenner construction firm New Building Enterprises, said even though his work has slowed “tremendously” he receives calls every week from Hispanic workers nationwide looking for jobs.

“They think New Orleans is doing better and we are compared to the rest of country. Other areas are completely dead and we are not dead yet,” Arriola said. “But right now we have enough workers for the amount of available work. If people come looking for a job, they won’t find anything.”

The fortunes of the day laborers and New Orleans construction firms could change, however, once the billions of dollars in public recovery projects begin, Yoder said.

“No question we’re in a unique situation, and what makes it unique is the possibility of having recovery money coming in and shoring up the economy,” Yoder said. “Without the recovery money, we’re like every other state in the union struggling to survive with our economy in the toilet.

“The problem is that the money is not flowing like everyone expected. But once it does, the work will return and so will the large numbers of Hispanic workers.”•

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