Saket Soni, Executive Director, Resilience Force
Hurricanes, floods, forest fires and severe storms are increasingly common as the effects of climate change begin to appear in our daily lives. While we often see news coverage of the catastrophic damage these events cause, we rarely see the workers who help damaged areas recover and rebuild. This hidden workforce, made up largely of immigrants, traverses the country to where workers are needed, just like workers in Amazon warehouses and migrant agricultural workers. These workers, dubbed as the resilience workforce by Saket Soni, executive director of Resilience Force, are employed in work that too often lacks safe conditions, decent pay, or benefits.
Perhaps no workers will be more essential as the climate crisis and its effects deepen. Resilience Force, the organization Saket leads, stands at the intersection of these twin crises, where this work is incredibly important for communities and our country but the workers doing it are treated as disposable. The organization is a national initiative to transform America’s response to disasters by strengthening the resilience workforce.
The new resilience economy is growing quickly though, and not to the benefit of workers. “The resilience economy and disaster restoration industries have billions of dollars, public and private, circulating inside of them. The companies in this economy are consolidating fast. For investors, these dynamics are a source of profit. For company staff – the CEOs, team, white-collar project managers – they are a source of good, family-supporting jobs, as they are for insurance adjusters, government employees, and a vast army of private consultants,” Saket says. And on the other hand, “The people carrying out this work are workers of color, living in poverty. Resilience work is unregulated, fissured, and dangerous. But it doesn’t have to be that way.”
Saket co-founded Resilience Force in 2017. Prior to that, he spent over 10 years as a labor organizer after Hurricane Katrina. Saket has been involved in worker organizing in Louisiana and other disaster affected regions ever since. He’s founded multiple worker advocacy organizations, helped protect migrant whistleblowers in the hospitality and seafood industries, and helped workers recover wages stolen by their employers. Much of this type of work continues with Resilience Force.
Resilience Force is focused on three overlapping outcomes. The organization wants to improve the quality of resilience-related jobs now, to create and grow more good jobs in the sector to support America’s resilience to climate change, and to improve access and advancement opportunities to these jobs by transforming the jobs into formal, professional careers with training pathways and certifications.
Building a Proof of Concept by Piloting the Resilience Corps
New Orleans workers, particularly those of color, suffered disproportionate effects on their employment and earnings after the COVID-19 pandemic began. The same communities were hardest hit by the health effects of the pandemic. Saket and Resilience Force had seen these dynamics before with Katrina and other hurricanes.
In the midst of the pandemic, Resilience Force collaborated with the City of New Orleans, public health officials, philanthropy, and workforce partners to test Resilience Corps, a group of workers trained to help the community respond to the effects of COVID-19. Resilience Force and their partners recruited people whose employment had been affected by the pandemic and weather disasters to be trained for new jobs to support the community’s COVID-19 response.
The 60 Resilience Corps members have been on the frontlines of the pandemic while being trained in community health worker and organizing practices. They have worked on contact tracing and COVID-19 testing and helped provide wellness checks, basic supplies such as food, and referrals to a variety of supports and resources. Corps members have also been instrumental in vaccine outreach and education.
Resilience Corps members earn $12 an hour to start – $4.75 more than the local minimum wage – and can earn upwards of $18 an hour. Participants receive help with issues such as child care and housing and continue their training throughout the program to prepare them for other jobs in health care.
In the middle of the pandemic, Hurricane Ida hit the city. The Resilience Corps once again stepped in to conduct wellness checks, provide ice and food, and help people find other resources they needed. Resilience Force designed the corps as a pilot to show what could be done to improve job quality in this sector while helping communities respond to disaster. The organization is now in talks to pilot the model in other cities. And the pilot in New Orleans is influencing how policymakers in D.C. think about a Civilian Climate Corps.
A big part of Resilience Force’s work to improve job quality is creating opportunities for workers in the industry to organize and build power so they can drive change. Organizing also helps to raise awareness about this workforce, and changing the narrative around this work is also an important part of the organization’s efforts. These workers are “essential” and “skilled,” says Saket, but they are often thought of as “unskilled” or “casual.” Key to changing and advancing the narrative is building coalitions with climate advocates and others to demand job quality for this workforce be improved. The work to raise awareness also lays the foundation for the organization’s advocacy.
Policy advocacy happens at the local, state, and federal level, as well as with employers. At the local level, Resilience Force has already developed social equity and job protection agreements for resilience workers in multiple cities. The organization continues to work with the Biden Administration, the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) and the Department of Labor on crafting strategies for climate resilience and investments in the resilience sector, and has developed a number of reports and memos to support its agenda. The organization also provides legal advocacy, partnering with law firms to help workers whose rights have been violated.
Saket and his team are also advocating with employers in the industry to build better practices and demonstrate how a high road can be taken. According to Saket, “We are building a high-road partnership table of multiple stakeholders, including companies that embrace standards…We have raised floor wages from $9 to $15 per hour across all of the contracts within one national-scale company, impacting approximately 20,000 seasonal jobs per year.”
Resilience Force has a vision for not just growing wages, but fundamentally transforming work in the sector to help support that wage growth and better job quality. Saket says the aim is to professionalize and train for the work where needed. For example, the organization is partnering with Delgado Community College in Louisiana and others toward “building a certification program and training process to turn people who are seen – and paid – as general laborers into certified disaster restoration technicians,” according to Saket. Saket says over 600 resilience workers have already entered training pathways in various certifications.
Tweet Strengthening the Hidden Resilience Workforce: A Profile of @AspenJobQuality Fellow @saket_soni, Executive Director of @ResilienceForce.
Tweet [email protected] is focused on three outcomes: advancing #jobquality, supporting resilience to climate change, and improving access and advancement by transforming resilience jobs into formal careers with training pathways and certifications.
Tweet During the pandemic, @ResilienceForce recruited people for new, living-wage jobs to support New Orleans’ COVID response — serving on the front lines to administer tests, deliver supplies, and conduct outreach. Learn more in this profile of @saket_soni.
Tweet Increasingly, we see the damaging effects of climate change: hurricanes, floods, fires, and storms. But we rarely see the people who help to rebuild — resilience workers — who are largely immigrants and often lack safe conditions, decent pay, or benefits.
Tweet “The people carrying out this work are workers of color, living in poverty. Resilience work is unregulated, fissured, and dangerous. But it doesn’t have to be that way.” #JobQuality Fellow @saket_soni @ResilienceForce
Saket Soni is a member of the Aspen Institute’s Job Quality Fellowship, Class of 2022-23. The Job Quality Fellowship is convened by the Economic Opportunities Program.
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