Carlos Llenes is on the front lines of the movement for just, equitable and sustainable recovery and rebuilding after Superstorm Sandy. Originally from Ecuador, Carlos has been a remediation worker for more than 20 years, and is working with the environmental remediation company Synatec Incorporated to thoroughly clean and rehabilitate homes throughout New York and New Jersey that have been infected with mold due to flooding from Superstorm Sandy.
Five months after the storm, mold continues to be a widespread problem in homes and small businesses. A recent study of the Rockaways by the community group New York Communities For Change reported that 37 percent of residents surveyed still have mold in their homes. A biological hazard, mold threatens those exposed with irritation, allergies, poisoning, and infectious diseases. People with compromised immune systems are especially vulnerable, as are children, seniors, and the poor, all of whom are most likely to continue living in mold-infested buildings.
In January 2013, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a $15 million remediation program to remove mold in 2,000 homes throughout the city’s hardest-hit districts. It is estimated, however, that more than 70,000 homes have been hit by severe flooding, and remain moldy. In the absence of a comprehensive mold clean-up program, individuals are left to clean their own homes, or deal with potentially unscrupulous contractors that use low-paid, under-trained workers to take advantage of a desperate situation.
Contractors like Synatec stress the importance of expertise and professionalism for a job that cannot be left to inexperienced residents or well-meaning volunteers. Synatec uses more than 1,000 well-trained, well-paid local union laborers to protect everyone involved in this process. Carlos insists that “the company must have all of the necessary machinery, all the appropriate implementation tools, and especially qualified people, so the job can be done well. You have to find a good company with all the correct tools to do a thorough cleaning.”
While well-intentioned individuals and poorly-trained workers sometimes do remediation work in sweatshirts – bringing mold spores on their clothes back to their families in a hazardous process called cross-contamination – Synatec workers are outfitted with full-body protective suits, and are thoroughly trained to do a safe and professional job. More importantly, staff are part of a union that provides full benefits. “The union has made a lot of difference,” says Carlos, “because we get medical benefits and retirement benefits. All people who work in this line of work should have these because it’s dangerous – we get sick a lot.”
Carlos is a foreman and works with a crew of several people when ridding homes of mold. The process is complicated, and requires a high level of expertise. “All of the basements after Superstorm Sandy are contaminated and humid,” he explains. “Now we have to do tests in all of the buildings that have high humidity, use all the required chemicals, and replace all the material to leave the air with a pure quality, so that people can reoccupy their homes.”
Workers like Carlos, and companies like Synatec, stand as living proof that well-paid and well-trained union labor benefits workers, residents and the entire city. In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, the City should mobilize thousands of union workers like Carlos to get the hardest-hit boroughs back home and back to work. “What I like most about my job is that it serves the community,” Carlos concludes with a smile, “and leaves a place clean. When we leave a building, the people that live there are appreciative of the job we’ve done.”