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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 disenfranchised."

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 Falls.

Debris from a flood-damaged home
is piled along a street in Cedar
Rapids, Iowa.

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.

"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 College.

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 damage.

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 exploited."

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 pastoral care.

"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 wrote.

*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

Related Articles

On Flooding and Exploitation

Chaplain says workers battle poor conditions


Flood Workers Statement

Cornell College

Iowa Annual Conference

Episcopal Diocese of Iowa

Iowa Conference of the United Church of Christ

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