Cleaning Up Oil is Awful Work, But at Least You Can Get it

Oil spill workers describe 12-hour days, patronizing rules and bunking in a floating motel. It's a terrible job that they're thrilled to have.

By Brentin Mock Aug 17, 2010

In Port Fourchon, about 18 miles west of Grand Isle, La., hundreds of workers line up to "scan out" after a 12-hour day of work on a sun-baked beach. They started at 4 a.m. with breakfast and a safety meeting before heading to the sands to collect tar balls, tar patties and other contaminated debris washing ashore from the BP oil spill.

At 4 p.m. they get in line to have identification badges scanned and officially close out of a work day. The sight of the line, stretching hundreds of yards, reveals mostly, if not exclusively African American and Latino workers. The only white people on the grounds seem to be the U.S. Coast Guard and Environmental Protection Agency officials who are there to oversee the operations.

The workers load themselves into school buses and vans, which will take them either to Grand Isle for a meal and a little off-the-clock leisure or to what’s called the "float-el." It’s a floating motel–or as the workers more accurately describe it, a huge ship–connected to a pier and balancing on the volatile waters of the Gulf. Once inside, workers go to cabin sections that are occupied by four workers a piece. There’s a shower and toilet in each. They sleep on bunkbeds, four workers per room. One worker describes it as "just like college." But given that these are mostly middle-aged men and women, it sounds more like a military camp.

The workers’ lives are wholly regulated by their employer–not just where they work, but where they eat and where, or if, they can shop. They even have a curfew at 11 p.m. "It’s a bunch of grown men out here being treated like kids," says one man.

He’s part of a crew working for Southland Energy Services, one of various contractors handling cleanup workers in the area. Southland pays $12.00 an hour for 12-hour days of work, seven days a week. The workers don’t plow straight through, but instead do "30-30s"–work for 30 minutes, rest for 30 minutes–or "20-40s." Many of them have been working since April and they say they’ll be out here at least through December, away from family, friends and in some cases wives, husbands and significant others.

The workers aren’t allowed to bring their personal vehicles to the work-site, so their mobility is completely dependent on their employers’ shuttles. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays they might be able to cajole one of the drivers to take them to McDonald’s or Wal-Mart after work. Some complain, though, that the drivers often "don’t feel like going," or they have friends and favorites that they’ll serve exclusively.

"You can’t always leave like you want to," says Joseph Pickney, one of the workers. "You have to wait for transportation, and if they don’t want to go, you can’t go. They supposed to take you, but if they tired from work, you can’t force them to drive."

The rules vary among contractors, but Southland is one of the main employers enforcing the no-car rule. Representatives of the company said they would not comment for this story. Southland’s offices are in Morgan City and Houma, La., both hours away, and that’s where workers drop off their cars before they’re bussed into the work sites. They come from all over the state–as far away as Shreveport in northwestern Louisiana–to live on a ship quarantined away from society. "If something happen to us out there," says one worker, "we stranded."

Both last week and yesterday, huge tropical depressions waved in from the Gulf of Mexico, causing evacuations. National news has closely followed the local weather patterns, because these sorts of storms delay the effort to fix BP’s mess. But for the workers doing the fixing, the storms are ordeals onto themselves. Hundreds of them were squeezed into roughly half a dozen vans and a few buses.

"They talking about evacuation, but we ain’t got enough vans out here," said Pickney in the hours before last week’s storm hit. "And we got all our clothes out here. How’s that all going to fit? We pretty much on our own."

And then there’s the food. "This food is ridiculous," Pickney complains. "You eat it because you gotta eat, otherwise you gonna starve."

The eating areas amount to a mess hall where the workers have little options, even if they have dietary restrictions. The option is to not eat. Or, to convince van drivers to take them to Grand Isle, where there are plenty of seafood restaurants. Of course, the problem with that is Grand Isle is hardly welcoming.

A recent L.A. Times article reported heightening racial tensions between the mostly black and brown migrant workers and the mostly white and Cajun natives of Grand Isle. The fire chief and oil spill incident commander Aubrey Chaisson, who’s part Native American, waves a Confederate flag from his house. He warns that this is "our ‘hood" and states that an African American worker who urinated on his fence "triggered World War III."

The NIMBYism and racism residents like Chaisson expressed to the Times was directed at the contract workers housed in Grand Isle’s beachfront properties. The natives want those workers out–sent someplace like the float-els, where they can do their jobs and stay out of sight.

One Port Fourchon worker recalls a time when he and his co-workers went to a restaurant in Grand Isle, "because they have better food than we have in Port Fourchon," only to find out they wouldn’t be served. "It was five of us, all black guys and some of the guys had shorts and flip flops on," he recalls. "They said that, ‘You can’t come in here with slippers and shorts on.’ It sounded like they made that up when we walked in. I’m not going back."

So he stays on the float-el and gripes. He recalls one time when they were given sausage links that workers said smelled foul, and another time when his co-worker got meat that looked like it had "mildew" on it. If they complain–about the food, about the shuttle service, about the hours–they fear they may be out of a job.

That, of course, is their greatest worry. Both the recession and the jobless recovery that has followed it have been brutal for these men and women. So they consider it a blessing that this much employment has come to the state, even if it comes courtesy of a cursed oil spill that put many other industries, like fishing, out of commission. In the end, they sound more grateful that they have work of any kind than upset about the indignities associated with it. As Pickney, who has his share of grievances to report, concludes, "BP, shout-out to them: Thanks for getting me a job."