New Orleans Testing Program to Train Workers to Respond, Clean Up After Climate Disasters

Hurricane Ida Recovery
New Orleans is testing a program which trains workers to prepare for, help respond to and clean up after climate disasters. Above, workers remove a tree that fell on a home during Hurricane Ida on August 31, in Houma, Louisiana. Scott Olson/Getty Images

New Orleans is testing a program that trains workers to respond and help clean up and recovery efforts after climate disasters, which is supported by the Families and Workers Fund.

Resilience Force, a nonprofit that trains workers to prepare for and respond to natural disasters, provided training to 100 people in New Orleans. Most of the workers had been earning minimum wage at service jobs before the pandemic hit.

Saket Soni, the group's executive director, said a high proportion of people who received training were people of color and immigrants. They are workers who are usually underpaid and are willing to put themselves at risk to complete their jobs.

"The resilience workforce is largely a low-wage workforce. It's largely unrecognized and largely unprotected," Soni said. "These people doing heroic work that we can count on but all the while they're hanging by a thread."

For the New Orleans program developed by Soni and the city, workers are paid an initial rate of $12 an hour and receive health benefits. During the pandemic, they acted as contact tracers and provided vaccine information. After Hurricane Ida, they inspected buildings and served as case workers to victims of the storm.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Hurricane Ida Recovery
New Orleans is testing a program which trains workers to prepare for, help respond to and clean up after climate disasters. Workers remove a tree that fell on a home during Hurricane Ida on August 31, in Houma, Louisiana. Scott Olson/Getty Images

A fund created by a group of social-justice-minded foundations shortly after COVID hit has more than quadrupled in size to $48 million and is now pouring money into activities and advocacy to strengthen the social safety net and increase worker pay.

Among the efforts it is funding: building a new career option by training people who can help the nation recover after natural disasters and persuading employers that these roles deserve decent compensation.

"The recovery from COVID-19 really is an opportunity to reimagine our economic and labor market systems," says Rachel Korberg, the fund's executive director and co-founder. "Today is our once-in-a-generation shot to build a more equitable economy."

When it was created in the early months of the pandemic, the Families and Workers Fund had a singular goal: alleviate the financial pain the pandemic was inflicting on low-wage workers who were either taking great risks to stay on the job or were suddenly shut out of work because of the health crisis.

Drawing from a set of social-justice and tech donors that included the Amalgamated, Ford, and JPB foundations, along with Abigail Disney and Schmidt Futures, which is the philanthropic vehicle of Google founder Eric Schmidt and his wife, Wendy, the fund made $10 million in grants, largely in the form of cash to workers missing their paychecks.

Since then, the fund has picked up new donors, including MacKenzie Scott, tech philanthropist Craig Newmark, and Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey. The Rockefeller and Roger I. and Ruth B. MacFarlane foundations are also backing the fund, which now operates as a stand-alone nonprofit.

The growth in the Families and Workers Fund comes as other foundations are also moving to address the needs of low-wage workers. Blue Meridian Partners, a coalition of grant makers and donors, created a $150 million relief fund to both make direct cash payments to people and improve the delivery of public benefits. And the Omidyar Network, founded by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, committed $35 million toward its "Reimagining Capitalism" effort, which includes support for increasing workers rights.

Resilience Force received a $1.5 million grant from the Families and Workers Fund to improve wages and benefits of workers who provide critical recovery services to cities that have been hit by disasters.

The nonprofit promotes the idea of a new work-force category in the age of climate-induced disasters: the resilience worker, who can be a day care provider, a construction worker, or a building inspector, all of whom provide essential services in the wake of a disaster. Soni envisions training thousands of people to be permanent resilience workers who are employed by cities and nonprofits across the country.

Using money from the Families and Workers Fund, Soni hopes to spread the idea to cities across the country so that resilience workers become as permanent a part of city services as fire departments.

Sarita Gupta, director of the Ford Foundation's Future of Work(ers) program and co-founder of the fund, believes the reliance of low-paid workers throughout the pandemic has resulted in a broader public understanding of how difficult it is to live on a low wage.

"The opportunity of the fund right now is to reaffirm that essential workers deserve dignity and respect," she says. "And this means good and safe jobs with wages and benefits and protections that all workers deserve."

The race to get cash into the hands of workers last year gave Korberg and the fund's donors a deeper understanding of the obstacles faced by low-income workers.

Two of the biggest problems, Korberg says, are the inability of workers to get timely unemployment or relief payments and the lack of higher paying jobs that offer benefits and the possibility of promotion. These problems are especially challenging for people of color, immigrants, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ workers, Korberg says.

One of the first grants the fund made with its new focus was to the New Practice Lab at New America. a Washington think tank, to analyze how federal benefit systems performed during the pandemic and offer a set of recommendations for improvements.

Jack Dorsey
The Families and Workers Fund, which was created by a group of social-justice-minded foundations including donors like Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey shortly after COVID hit, has more than quadrupled in size to $48 million. Above, Dorsey appears on a screen as he speaks remotely during a hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee on October 28, 2020, in Washington. Michael Reynolds/Pool via AP