Andrea came bursting into my office around the first week in October. She started out by apologizing for having missed the past couple of weeks of English classes, explaining that she had gotten a job cleaning up office buildings near the site of the former World Trade Center. She couldn’t come to class because she had been working twelve hours a day, seven days a week. She really needed the work.
They said they would pay her $7.50 an hour, better than minimum wage. But there were problems. They weren’t paying her. Well, they paid her some cash under the table, and once someone gave her a personal check, but they kept holding back promised money and then saying that she hadn’t worked on specific days.
It was hard work, she explained. Inches of dust on keyboards and telephones, which she cleaned with a damp rag and then a dry rag. I thought about that dust: pulverized steel, melted plastic, asbestos, even vaporized human remains. But the worst part, she said, was pushing up the panels of the drop ceilings and having the dust pour down on her.
She’d been coughing, she said, even spitting up blood. She showed me the rashes on her skin, and her colleague who had come with her showed me his rashes as well. I was alarmed. Wasn’t she wearing protective gear? A mask? Well, she had one of those cotton masks they were handing out on the street downtown.
She was really more concerned about getting paid. She had done the work and was entitled to get paid. She really needed the money. Her seven-year-old son had been calling collect every night from Colombia. Since September 11, he called crying, saying that she was going to die if she stayed in New York and begging her to return to Colombia. She hadn’t known that international collect calls were so expensive. The telephone bill was $1,000. She could have flown to Colombia and back for less. Her son wanted her to return to Colombia for good. She desperately wanted her son to come to New York, far away from all of the kidnappings and bombings in her hometown.
She came to New York for the purpose of bringing her son here, to keep him safe. But his immigration paperwork was buried in the bureaucratic process, and now the world seemed upside down. For the cost of his phone calls, she said, she could have flown him to Mexico and had someone sneak him across the border. She was so desperate. She hadn’t seen her son in nearly two years, since he was five years old.
Andrea had working papers, unlike most of the hundred or more Spanish speakers who lined up every morning to be marched into the frozen zone to clean offices. Someone had gotten the lucrative contract for cleaning up the buildings adjacent to the destruction. Rather than invest in the kinds of equipment appropriate to the job, they just exploited a readily available resource: immigrant labor.
Andrea’s story is part of a larger article I wrote for Literacy Harvest about working with adult immigrants during and after the 9/11 attacks. For more stories about the impact of the 9/11 attacks on NYC’s immigrant community, please read:
After Andrea told me her story, I got on the phone. I called The New York Immigration Coalition, the New York City Public Advocate’s Office, City Council Members, anyone who would listen. In the weeks and months that followed, both the press and elected officials started to take notice of the exploitation of immigrant labor at Ground Zero. Ultimately, Andrea got the back wages she was owed, and time and a half pay for every hour beyond 8 hours per day. She was happy.
A few years later, Andrea returned to my office. She had ongoing health problems. Trouble breathing. She didn’t have health insurance, and she knew she was entitled to the healthcare benefits to support first responders and those who worked at Ground Zero. But the clinics said she needed proof that she had worked there in Frozen Zone in the weeks after the attacks. She had no proof.
I photocopied the article that I had written, in which I had used her first name, and wrote a letter stating that she was the person identified in the article. She was, in fact, the very first person who brought this exploitation to light.
As tragic as Andrea’s story is, she was luckier than many of her colleagues at Ground Zero. What proof could they offer that they had worked there? Many of them have probably died, like so many of the firefighters and police officers and other people who went into the Frozen Zone with no protection other than cotton masks. And many of them are certainly still undocumented. Living in the shadows, maligned by the media and the Republican presidential candidate.
They deserve to be honored as national heroes. Not abandoned. Not forgotten.