In the weeks since Hurricane Sandy swept onto shore and left a path of destruction along the East Coast, we’ve witnessed the bravery and sheer determination of the region’s residents as they recover and rebuild.
Last month, we made our way to one of the hardest-hit areas of Staten Island. Vibrant beachfronts once filled with friends and families have been replaced by recovery workers and volunteers, including day laborers.
Day laborers have been at the forefront of rebuilding efforts in the wake of previous disasters, from Hurricane Katrina to 9/11, and are already playing a central role in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. These front line workers are often exposed to serious, and sometimes deadly hazards: falls, electrocutions and machinery hazards, as well as exposure to toxic chemicals, molds and other hazardous materials. So, during our time on Staten Island, we met with organizations and community groups who are working hard to make sure these workers have the resources they need to stay safe on the job.
However, they can’t do it alone. Federal, state and local governments must also work with members of the private sector and other partners to get these communities back on their feet. In the spirit of public-private coordination, the Labor Department and the Ford Foundation, among others, are stepping up, deploying a wide variety of resources to give these communities and the workers engaged in cleanup the support they need.
Working side-by-side with our federal partners, the Labor Department has provided National Emergency Grants, which help pay for temporary jobs to restore local infrastructure. So far the department has awarded $46.7 million in these grants, and we’ve already seen it in action. In addition, Disaster Unemployment Assistance is providing more than $2 million in assistance to those whose jobs were interrupted or lost as a direct result of a major disaster. But that’s just the beginning.
The department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration personnel are on the ground, too. They have conducted more than 4,200 briefings and safety interventions, reaching almost 60,000 workers in affected areas, including 8,000+ who are non-English speaking. And more than 30,000 pieces of personal protective equipment, such as gloves and respirators, have been donated and distributed to workers engaged in cleanup. OSHA has also distributed a Hurricane Sandy Cleanup Personal Protective Equipment Matrix Fact Sheet to help workers know what equipment they should be using, as well as educational information on the hazards of downed electrical wires, chain saws, chipper machines, portable generators, mold and falls.
The Ford Foundation has also been committed to supporting community rebuilding efforts. Last month it announced a $5 million commitment to the NYC Nonprofit Recovery Loan Program, which will provide short-term bridge funding to help local nonprofit organizations serving communities devastated by the storm. In addition, Ford has committed $254,000 to help protect the health and safety of vulnerable workers on the front lines of community rebuilding efforts. These funds will support efforts by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, a grantee of both the foundation and OSHA, and its network of 14 worker centers throughout affected areas.
The lessons of these efforts will also be invaluable as we build a longer-term, systematic approach to future storms. For example, by fully integrating day laborers’ safety and low-income communities’ participation in post-disaster planning into our standard response, we can go a long way in helping affected neighborhoods.
Since Hurricane Sandy, communities and organizations along the eastern seaboard have banded together to pick up the pieces and put their towns back together. We stand together for a common purpose. We know there will be struggles, and that our work has only just begun. But we will be there for them until the job is done.
Hilda Solis is secretary of labor and Luis Ubiñas is president of the Ford Foundation.