Climate change means new industries, and new scandals, for reporters to learn to cover

Michelle had a respiratory infection so severe she had to quit her job. Marcos found his arms, torso, and legs covered in hives that wouldn’t go away. Santos, once a star on the soccer field, developed chronic asthma that prevents him from playing with his son for more than five minutes.

What all these workers have in common is a history—in some cases dating back almost two decades—of restoring US cities devastated by floods, hurricanes, and wildfires after emigrating from Latin American and Caribbean countries.

Our team at Columbia Journalism Investigations documented how such disaster restoration workers face long-term health risks after being exposed to harmful toxins propagated by climate-fueled calamities. In that investigation, “Toxic Labor,” done in collaboration with the Center for Public Integrity and Futuro Investigates, we found that disaster restoration companies exploit a loose federal policy, leaving workers vulnerable to toxins like mold, asbestos, and lead, often without training or protective gear. As a result, many are getting sick.

This month, CJI and its partners are releasing the final installment: an audio documentary, airing on April 19 on the Latino USA program, that centers workers’ stories, as told in their own voices.

Worth an estimated $150 billion, the disaster restoration industry is built mostly on the backs of immigrant workers. And it’s just one sector growing exponentially alongside increasingly powerful and frequent floods, hurricanes, and wildfires. As this burgeoning industry and workforce shows, the climate crisis is bringing with it new issues—and new beats—for journalists to examine. 

And novel reporting techniques, too. During our yearlong investigation, we found that audience-driven reporting techniques and reporter-researcher collaborations made it possible to capture these workers’ realities in the absence of official data. 

Early in our reporting, we noticed that government officials had sounded the alarm over disaster restoration workers’ toxic exposure as far back as Hurricane Katrina. Yet there are no state or federal data tracking workers’ toxic exposures over time, or their subsequent health symptoms. We set out to build our own dataset—joining a growing trend in investigative climate reporting. In consultation with toxicologists, industrial hygienists, and worker advocates, we created a questionnaire for disaster restoration workers to learn about their employment experiences and health symptoms. The experts’ understanding of this workforce helped us devise nuanced and detailed questions, which we translated into Spanish and Portuguese.

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Developing the questionnaire would enable us to point to original data findings to bolster the stories that workers shared with us, building trust with readers. We could also show how their experiences were part of a pattern.

But that was only the first step. We knew it would take time and face-to-face trust-building to gain worker buy-in, including the promise of anonymity. In partnership with Public Integrity’s audience team and reporter María Inés Zamudio, we developed multilingual posters linking to the questionnaire and distributed them to local churches, worker groups, laundromats—we even hung them on restroom walls. We also took several reporting trips to post-hurricane cleanup zones to conduct questionnaires in person—visiting laborer corners in New Orleans, for instance, and attending worker gatherings in the weeks after Hurricane Ian hit Fort Myers. Zamudio spent months cultivating relationships with workers on the phone.

Over seven months, our team was able to gather a hundred questionnaire responses. Experts who reviewed the anonymized results were astonished. They found our findings depressing, but also said the reporting could pave the way for crucial research dollars for occupational- and environmental-health specialists to follow up.

“I think it’s only going to get worse…unless there are steps taken to reduce their exposure,” said Linda Birnbaum, a former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

Our reporting taught us about solutions that could address this largely hidden workforce. While our data analysis helped demonstrate a correlation between disaster site working conditions and workers’ health issues, proving causation requires long-term scientific study. Multiple toxicologists told us they were eager to monitor workers’ prolonged toxic exposures and health issues. It would be a challenging task given that these workers are transitory, often moving from one disaster site to the next, they said. But they believe government-funded research would be a natural precursor to better protective regulations.

Meanwhile, there are some legislative efforts meant to help workers. Last September, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat from Washington State, introduced for the second time a federal bill known as the Climate Resilience Workforce Act. It would establish temporary immigrant status, access to training, and healthcare for these laborers.

But as Jayapal discusses in “Toxic Labor,” even if federal lawmakers approved the bill, it wouldn’t address concerns over corporate accountability and gaps in worker protection standards from the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

OSHA has been drafting a disaster restoration regulation that would address gaps in response standards for a fuller range of hazards—including the training and safety gear that would safeguard against them—for seventeen years now. But the proposed rule omits this worker population, instead focusing on first responders. In other instances, Congress has mandated that OSHA quickly develop new regulations, creating training programs and requiring employers to provide site-specific protective gear—something lawmakers could do for this workforce too.

Today, while this policy debate drags on, advocacy organizations are stepping in to fill the gaps, training workers to protect themselves, doing what employers are supposed to do. But with limited resources, these groups can only do so much.

Experts we interviewed believe that a steady media spotlight on this sector could be just the catalyst to make these solutions a reality. While our investigation was national in scope, there are endless stories to be reported at the local level. On the West Coast, increasingly frequent and severe wildfires create their own set of toxic risks. As floods inundate more of the country, communities that have never experienced a natural disaster will no doubt grapple with these issues—and benefit from the labor of this vulnerable workforce.

As part of our collaboration with Public Integrity, we created a detailed tool kit so that local newsrooms whose coverage areas include immigrant-heavy neighborhoods could start to dig into the disaster restoration industry in their own communities. Reporters don’t have to look far to get started: paying attention to the scenes unfolding on the labor corners or in store parking lots after a hurricane, flood, or wildfire can offer tips. Rather than flee disaster zones, restoration workers are flocking there, looking for low-wage postings.

Centering workers’ and advocates’ experiences, which can be done by building trusting and authentic source relationships, will continue to bring nuance to disaster restoration coverage. This is just one of many new arenas in our changing world, and creative reporting techniques can—and should—be used to effectively cover them.

Janelle Retka, Samantha McCabe, and Jiahui Huang reported the “Toxic Labor” investigation as postgraduate reporting fellows at Columbia Journalism Investigations, the investigative-reporting unit at the Columbia Journalism School, for which CJI joined forces with the Center for Public Integrity and Futuro Investigates.