Strangely, it wasn't the hurricane itself that tore down the life and family of Daniel Dotta. It was the clean-up crew that came along behind it.
Four weeks ago, Dotta was a maintenance worker at Yates Services, doing contracted work for the Nissan plant in Canton. He made $11 an hour, and with his tendency to work overtime, Dotta says he averaged about $700 a week. He even supplemented this with part-time horse training on weekends, bringing in a little extra money. Dotta and his wife, Miera Sandobal, and their 3-year-old daughter, Natalea Dotta, lived in a cute, comfortable apartment just outside the city of Jackson, along the fringes of Highway 80.
Dotta and his family have lost all that now. What was once a family of three getting along in a home to themselves is now a family bunking with six others, dependent on the support of friends until they can get back on their feet. Dotta now works plastering and sanding sheet rock for Juan Rodriguez Inc., often spending days away from his Jackson family while he works in places like Meridian. He earns $7.50 an hour and barely makes ends meet. It's a job he shares with about five other Latinos.
With hard work and a willingness to sacrifice, Dotta and his family had been creeping their way up the economic ladder.
But then along came friend Cesar Flores Nunez.
'I Trusted Him'
"He had been my contact," Dotta explained. "Nunez had got me the job at Yates that worked so well. I trusted him. I did not see a reason not to. He called me, he said, 'Come on, there is good work for you in Biloxi. We have work for you and your wife, too. Come on."
Dotta says that Nunez, a former placement staffer at Instaff in Jackson, had taken a job at Corporate Personnel Service and Temps Inc., based in Larose, La. Nunez carried promises of steady work and high pay for Dotta at waste management company BFI, driving a loading truck in Biloxi. Dotta, formerly of Uruguay, speaks relatively good English, so Nunez said good money was a given in the new world of post-Katrina Mississippi.
"He said I'd get to drive the truck and that we'd have free housing for four to six months at least," Dotta said, adding that his job scout assured him there would also be baby-sitting services for his daughter. Dotta quit his job with Yates, packed his family and headed for Biloxi.
Things soured quickly after Dotta and his family relocated. Dotta made a fraction of the money he was promised. The driving job Nunez promised turned out to be a more laborious position dumping debris into a garbage truck. Furious that he'd traded his Jackson job for low-wage labor, he dropped the Biloxi position.
BFI took away the room and board soon after, and it was only a matter of days before man and wife were living with their daughter out of their van. With leveled houses and storm-damaged scrub all around them, Dotta described the experience as living like homeless derelicts in a post-apocalyptic world.
There was no going back to his old position in Jackson, however. "My supervisor, he says 'Daniel, if you go you cannot come back.'"
Yates Safety Manager Larry Hannah says the company does not have a strict no-rehire policy, but would not elaborate on Dotta's departure.
Within two weeks, the shining dream of a free house and the baby-sitting promised by Nunez soon degenerated into little more than the benevolent generosity of a friend's RV.
"He ended up out of a job and a home," said Victoria Cintra, coordinator for the Mississippi Gulf Coast MIRA (Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance). "We ended up housing him in our trailer for three days. The guy had an apartment. They weren't rich, but they were comfortable. They lost their furniture and everything. It makes me furious, because Dotta is only one example of immigrant abuses going on all over Mississippi after the hurricane."
Cintra describes Nunez as a kind of human shepherd. He gathers up willing workers, many of them migrants desperate for some kind of income and willing to slough through a rat-filled gutter to get it, and puts them on work crews handling the endless amount of manual clean-up and reconstruction that a hurricane-stricken territory can provide. There's still much work to do in the shattered back roads of Mississippi and Louisiana, and a guy like Nunez entices workers with tales of a better life for Mississippi's immigrant population—many undocumented—who are willing to take the jobs few born citizens have the stomach for.
Joseph Douglas describes a different Cesar Flores Nunez. Douglas is a regional manager at Corporate Personnel Service and Temps inc, which he says employs Nunez as a "van driver." Douglas says he's unaware of any major problems with Nunez.
"There was someone a couple of weeks ago who accused Cesar of taking him off a job somewhere and bringing him to the Coast, but whoever it was upset with Cesar never worked with CPST," Douglas said.
A Hard Landing
But Dotta isn't the only one complaining. Nunez has other clients.
Mayda Capote, 56, and her husband Juan Reyea Pautiata are Cuban immigrants whose last ties with the city of Jackson were broken when Nunez promised Pautiata—a $400-a-week cook at a restaurant in Byram—a job making twice as much in Gulfport.
Nunez, who had helped Capote and Pautiata get jobs in the past, came calling with another coastal job offer, promising $11 an hour. Capote and Pautiata jumped at the chance.
"Nunez told us that what we were making was very little and that if (Pautiata) went to the Coast to work with him he might be doing twice that, plus free housing," said Capote through translator Sinia Harris, in MIRA's Jackson branch office. "But we did not make that much money. Also, there were abnormalities in those checks because there were missing hours and other problems. We should never have gone."
Capote says their relationship with Nunez collapsed, and they've now been given two days to relocate from the trailer provided by their former employers.
Many Latino immigrants come to America with a slew of handicaps, the most obvious being the inability to directly communicate with the person who hands them their check. Non-English-speaking immigrants require a go-between to arrange their services and hand them their check. Often, the go-between pays off; sometimes he doesn't. If there are problems, there's no way to complain. Complaints draw attention, and attention's the last thing you want if you're an undocumented worker in a country that's gone xenophobic since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Douglas says his company has made inquiries and turned up nothing to incriminate Nunez.
"As far as van driving and delivering people to their jobs, he has not done anything that I have found that's been considered misconduct," Douglas said. "We have a lot of other pressing issues other than somebody being accused of something outside our scope of work. I think a lot of it is people blowing smoke. A lot of what I'm hearing I think is just hearsay."
When asked for a contact number for Nunez, Douglas insisted he did not have one.
"I'm not down there at that location all the time. I cover a lot of areas. It's not my business to make sure I have a way of contacting everybody that works for me," said Douglas, adding, when pressed for a number to Nunez' Biloxi base, that "the location in Biloxi was wiped out by the storm."
The relocated Nunez could not be reached at his Jackson number. Calls to Nunez' former employers at Instaff Personnel of Jackson reveal a shining work record.
"He was our staffing supervisor and our general manager. He hired people and handled client/employee relationships. He did just about everything," said Samuel Drummond, a company staffer. "He did a fine job. We have no complaints about him."
Feds Hurting Workers
MIRA President Bill Chandler says unscrupulous contractors routinely recruit immigrants with promises of housing, pay and benefits, but then fail to deliver even a check. He says the practice has been a factor for years, but adds that the opening of new federal loopholes allow the mistreatment to be easier, and the pay to be lower.
"Some subcontractors can get away with these things because of President Bush removing the Davis-Bacon Act," he said. "Those decisions made after Katrina were not in the best interest of minorities and the disadvantaged."
In what they say is an effort to cut red tape and speed relief to victims of Hurricane Katrina, Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress have waived the 1931 Davis-Bacon Act in parts of four states most affected by Katrina, including Mississippi. The law requires workers on federal construction projects to receive the prevailing or average minimum wage in the area. Republicans say the law raises contract costs.
The AFL-CIO and labor groups such as MIRA say the suspension lowers wages and makes it tougher for union workers to be hired.
Other waivers include the Labor Department's suspension for three months of rules requiring some companies to file hiring plans for minorities, disabled workers and women. The waiver, which can be extended, applies to first-time federal contractors hired on reconstruction projects.
Critics like Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean say this move came at a time when Katrina had already opened deep racial and economic rifts between whites and minorities.
In terms of federal contract awards, the Transportation Department also issued a rule to allow no-bid contracts until Dec. 1 on restoration projects. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and others have called for an independent probe into how FEMA and other agencies have awarded contracts.
State Rep. Jim Evans, D-Jackson, cited serious problems with the suspension of the Davis-Bacon Act, saying it practically made it impossible for sub-contractors to pay fair wages to bottom-end workers.
"As badly as I'd like to stick it to them, they're getting stuck themselves," Evans said. "They're going out there with these contracts at $23 a-ton that they pay to Halliburton, Brown and Root, and Bechtel and them, and then they sub it out to the local fellow for $12, so the local guys have to charge low to make up their costs. We can't blame the sub-contractors way down at the bottom end because they're getting it done to them, too."
"Bechtel is George Schultz and Casper Weinberger's company, and Halliburton we know is (Vice President) Dick Cheney's company. They're getting the profit from those no-bid contracts, and the local people are just trying to make ends meet, and they're subbing out to somebody else for $8, so that $8 man, well, they suspended the Davis-Bacon Act so he can pay his people $5.50 and $6.50."
Shultz is the former president of Bechtel who was also the U.S. secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan from 1982 to 1989. Bechtel general counsel Casper Weinberger served as Reagan's defense secretary.
Gulf Coast Latin American Association President Andy Guerra says Latinos will remain easy targets.
"The truth of the matter is, they are easy prey, especially the non-English speaking ones or the undocumented ones. Employers know that they can be bullied, and the workers will usually back off in the face of abuse," Guerra said.
Great article, Adam! Thanks for keeping us informed. I have heard that some Latinos are not even given housing, but have slept at shelters or worse- but not sure if that's true.
Reminds me of the California farm workers, very exploited, close to slave wages and terrible living conditions, exposed to toxic pesticides.
Towanda, it's very true. Adam and I were at the same MIRA meeting last week, and the conditions folks are facing on the coast are horrific.
Great article, BTW. Donna, I know you folks already know it, but we're lucky to have this guy.
- Tom Head
I agree, Tom. Adam is a star, and we are very lucky to have him. I have said many times that I believe he is the best reporter in Jackson, and was before we hired him. He understands that good reporting is about people ... and pounding the pavement. ;-)
I just saw that this story is now featured on the front page of Altweeklies today as well.
A wonderful update on this story: Mr. Dotta called Adam yesterday and said that he got a good-paying job offer from someone who read this story about his family's plight.
Cheers to good people. ;-D
Wow. That is cool.
- Tom Head
The administration backed down on this point, at least. AP reports:
The Bush administration will reinstate rules requiring that companies awarded federal contracts for Hurricane Katrina pay prevailing wages, usually an amount close to the pay scales in local union contracts.
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., was among congressmen critical of the administration's decision to waive the requirement and who met today with White House chief of staff Andrew Card. He said Card told them the wage requirement would be reinstated Nov. 8.
"We thought it was bad policy and bad politics, and I guess they accepted our argument," King told The Associated Press. "There's no need to antagonize organized labor."