BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. -- The color of Hancock County is changing. To the blue roof tarps and white FEMA trailers, add this: brown workers.
It’s a trend seen across Katrina country as Hispanics who worked in construction in other parts of the United States were drawn by the prospect of good money.
In this town and neighboring Waveland, the pre-Katrina demographics had been 80 percent white, 15 percent African American and less than 2 percent Hispanic. Since Katrina, however, Hispanics are very visible at the few restaurants now open and especially at the largest debris removal sites.
Workers like Osmin, a Honduran who had lived for years in California before seeking his fortune from Katrina. He acts as the foreman of a group of fellow Hondurans hired to remove debris, drywall and sheetrock from a Bay St. Louis school. The others, too, had come from outside states like Texas and North Carolina. They also asked that their full names not be used because some were here illegally.
Click 'Play' to visit a job site in Bay St. Louis, Miss., where workers originally from Honduras are among the clean-up crew.
After nearly three months of 10-hour days and two hours of driving each way to their hotel, has it been worth the effort?
“Not really,” is Osmin’s quick reply. The crew gets $8 an hour and they’re never sure if they’ll have a job after the current one. Osmin, for one, plans to take off soon for California to see his daughter.
Many of these Hispanic workers are in the country illegally, which means they fly under the radar of social services and employment centers.
But they have become a critical part of the workforce, filling in a gap that most locals are unable or unwilling to deal with.
“The need far outweighs the help that’s available,” says Tee McCovey, a Mississippi Department of Employment Services supervisor. “And it will be like that for years.”
“Help is help,” he adds. “If I’m drowning and the hand is black, white or brown I just want to be helped out.”
Some locals don't want work
McCovey, who supervises job centers along the Gulf Coast, calls it “workforce malnutrition” and says many locals don’t want to work either because they’re too busy dealing with their homes or they’ve decided to live off the cash and other benefits coming from governments and charities, at least for now.
Some 150,000 unemployment claims have been filed since Katrina and many unemployed, he says, have this attitude: “Why do I want to go do that when I’ve been given a whole year’s worth of wages?” That’s especially true of those who didn’t have high incomes to begin with.
Another issue is that many locals haven’t returned, making it harder for businesses re-opening to find workers. Food service jobs used to start at $5.50 an hour, 35 cents more than the state minimum wage, but that’s up to $8, McCovey says. “It’s an employees' market.”
When locals do return to the workforce, the expectation is that many will be working in different areas. Casinos were major employers along the coast and some have shut down for months. Casino Magic in Bay St. Louis, for example, laid off nearly all its 1,100 employees.
“Our primary employment was services,” says Tish Williams, head of the Hancock County Chamber of Commerce. “And now it’s going to be construction.”
Retraining efforts include a $5 million federal program to have community colleges teach construction trades. And Mississippi has its own incentives, such as paying an employer 50 percent of its cost to train an employee over six months.
Until and unless more locals return to the workforce, outside workers appear to have a place here.
McCovey doesn’t know of any demographics on the wave of outside workers. But he puts the overall number at “thousands and thousands” and recognizes a large Hispanic contingent.
Working long days, the Hispanic workforce largely keeps to itself and few have brought their families, suggesting that they’re here not to settle down but make money and move on.
Not much friction
As a result, there’s little visible friction with locals. A derogatory joke about Hispanics by an off-duty sheriff at a Bay St. Louis gas station did nearly spark a fight with a man whose wife is Hispanic.
But McCovey and others haven’t heard of widespread problems, or even complaints like those raised in New Orleans, where Mayor Ray Nagin asked business leaders, “How do I make sure New Orleans is not overrun with Mexican workers?”
At the Hancock Medical Center, the county-owned hospital, administrator Hal Leftwich says “99 percent” of the debris removal crews, which reached a peak of 60, have been Hispanic.
“They’re hard-working,” he says, recalling that more than a few walked around with a worried look when, early on, federal relief workers included folks in Immigration and Naturalization Services.
Brother Ronald Talbot, president of St. Stanislaus College Prep, a Bay St. Louis high school that saw $19 million in damage, had a similar experience. “They’ve been lifesavers,” he says of Hispanic workers. Nearly 70 workers were at the campus at the peak of removal, he says, and 80 percent of those were Hispanic.
“They’re hard-working and pleasant,” he adds of the Hispanics he’s come across. “I’ve a much different view on immigration now.”
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