|Church leaders call for fair treatment of relief workers|
United Methodist Barry Cuvelier talks June 23 with Bishop
Gregory Palmer (left), Bishop Alan Scarfe and Sandra Kennedy-Owes about
the impact of a recent
tornado and flood on New Hartford, a small farming community in
northeastern Iowa. UMNS photos by Marta W. Aldrich.
A UMNS Report
By Linda Green*
July 7, 2008
Concern about a lack of safety, healthy working conditions and basic
rights has compelled three church leaders to call for just treatment of
the day laborers assisting in clean up flood-ravaged Iowa.
United Methodist Bishop Gregory Palmer, who leads his church’s Iowa
Annual Conference, has joined with two other religious leaders – Bishop
Alan Scarfe of the Episcopal Diocese of Iowa and the Rev. Rich Pleva of
the Iowa Conference of the United Church of Christ – in urging employers
of flood relief workers to fairly compensate them for their work.
The religious leaders want employers to provide basic necessities of
housing and minimum wages, and they expressed hope that Iowa "does not
follow the pattern of worker injustices that happened post-Katrina."
In a joint June 27 statement, the religious leaders requested that Iowa,
as a disaster stricken state, not allow its recovery "to be built on
the backs of those who are marginalized and economically
Paying for gas
The plight of the workers came to the attention of the three leaders
after the Rev. Catherine Quehl-Engel reported incidents of workers
traveling on a bus for 14 hours without food, tetanus shots, bedding or
towels for showering.
The workers received $15 a day for food and expenses and less than
minimum wage compensation, according to Quehl-Engel. She wrote in an
article in the Cedar Rapids Gazette that some workers who work
14-hour days, seven days a week, have to pay a temporary employment
agency back $49 a week for the school bus gas needed to get to Cedar
United Methodist-related Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, is
housing Red Cross workers, state patrol officers, displaced people,
businesses, and 150 Hispanic and African-American day laborers who work
from 5:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. assisting in the clean-up efforts in Cedar
Rapids and other flood-ravaged cities.
Debris from a flood-damaged home
is piled along a street in Cedar
"These poor, hardworking men and women are the calloused hands of Christ
tending Iowa’s wounds and grief. In return, I beg the question as to
whether Iowa and other flooded states will care for and protect them,"
said Quehl-Engel, an Episcopal priest serving as chaplain at Cornell
The workers need to know they are needed and appreciated "not only for
our economic well-being but for the resurrection of our cities amid
disaster," she said.
Treated like animals
Quehl-Engel also cited the example of a female worker who had
suffered a heart attack after a 14-hour workday — and after having had
only three hours of sleep the night before. The woman was treated,
released and returned to her home in Kansas City.
"She said to me that ‘we are treated like animals,’" Quehl-Engel said.
She cited reports of treatment of workers by temporary agencies and
national companies and workers being placed in housing situations where
several workers occupy one room. One company has workers sleeping on the
bus or under the bus that transports them, Quehl-Engel said.
"Imagine that you are in this toxic goo all day long and then you are
sleeping under the bus that brought you. Where do you shower? Where do
you rest?" she said.
Additional reports note that until recently, inadequate basic health and
safety measures and insurance had been provided. Workers had been
cleaning in the muck and mire without gloves and face masks.
"A vast majority of these people signed contracts that they did not
understand the terms," Quehl-Engel said. She added that the abuses of
the workers are allegedly by two temporary agencies who subcontract
under ServiceMaster, a company that cleans homes after disasters or
Speaking to gazetteonline.com, Chad Reichert, general manager of
ServiceMaster 380, said the company only works with licensed
subcontractors, which must comply with state laws. "We pay the temp
agencies $15 to $18 per hour, and they are responsible for their
employees after that," Reichert said.
Ensuring human rights
"These situations are unacceptable, inhumane, unjust and stand in
violation not only of the workers’ human decency and rights, but the
very communal fabric and identity of our state," the three
denominational leaders said. "As faith communities, as broader
communities, and as a state, (we) cannot allow the very people who are
helping restore our homes, businesses and lives to be abused and
As the flood waters recede, Iowa will need multiple resources in the
cleanup efforts and communities must work together to "ensure that this
recovery does not come at the expense of jeopardizing human dignity,
safety, health, or basic human rights," the religious leaders said.
Quehl-Engel and Cornell College have worked closely with the Iowa
Conference and the United Methodist Board of Church and Society to
ensure worker dignity and rights. Before workers could be housed at the
college, college officials wrote health and safety clauses into the
five-page contract for the employers of the workers, she said.
All parties worked to get health care, minimum wage and safety
precautions for the workers. Quehl-Engel, a Hispanic Roman Catholic
priest and a Catholic Charities national representative are providing
"Everyone is now vaccinated, they are being paid Iowa’s minimum wage,
food is being provided, and those in tears begging to go home are having
that request honored. Local residents are filling in with supplemental
food and fans," she said. Some workers are now in hotels and apartments,
but they are still working seven-days a week.
In her article, she also encouraged people to inquire about exploitation
of migrant workers and day laborers in their cities and towns.
"Amidst the chaos of the flood, don’t lose sight of enforcement of state
labor laws and standards of basic human decency, not to mention the
biblical mandate to care for the poor and marginalized," Quehl-Engel
*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Flooding and Exploitation
Chaplain says workers battle poor conditions
Flood Workers Statement
Iowa Annual Conference
Episcopal Diocese of Iowa
Iowa Conference of the United Church of Christ