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More than 250 West County workers lose jobs

on October 12, 2010

Employers in West Contra Costa County have let 273 workers go, after Congress adjourned without re-authorizing the fund that was paying their wages.

The $5 billion emergency jobs program was part of last year’s federal stimulus bill. The money went to states to help get citizens off welfare and working again. It subsidized 288 jobs in West County and more than 1,000 jobs in Contra Costa County.

The county placed workers in a variety of positions—from administrative support to carpentry—where they were trained on the job. The employees gained new skills and employers got a bigger workforce whose wages were paid with federal money.

Karen Mitchoff, spokeswoman for Contra Costa County Employment and Human Services Department (EHSD), said employees thrived in their new positions. “There are intangible benefits from working,” she said. “It raises people’s self-esteem and gives them skills they can use other places.”

Ahmad Rashad, GRIP’s head chef, is back to being the only cook after losing a kitchen staff of three subsidized workers. GRIP serves free lunch every day of the year to about 4,000 people a month. "Right when I got them all trained, they had to leave," he said. "Bring 'em back!"

But when Congress adjourned without funding the program for another year, employers—nonprofits, public agencies, and businesses—had to decide whether they would let the employees go or hire them and start paying the wages.

Of the 288 subsidized workers in West County, 15 kept their jobs.

Art Hatchett, Executive Director of Greater Richmond Interfaith Program (GRIP), was able to temporarily hire three of his 12 workers. Hatchett says the federal stimulus money allowed him to double his staff, bringing on cooks, residence counselors, and clerical support.

“We’ve always been severely understaffed,” Hatchett said. “It was a blessing for us.”

Caroline Marenco is one of the subsidized workers who got hired into a position. A bilingual case manager, Marenco helps people pay rent and utilities when they can’t afford it. She’s raising her 9-year-old son by herself and hopes she can keep the job. “I’m praying to God that it lasts until 2012,” she said.

At 18.5 percent, the unemployment rate in Richmond is one of the highest in the state. More than a third of the 139 West County agencies that got subsidized workers were in Richmond, according to an EHSD spreadsheet.

Project Pride, a North Richmond Rec Center, took on four long-term workers with the federal funds. On any given weekday, Project Pride provides a safe space for 20 to 30 kids and teens.

Project Pride, a North Richmond Rec Center, offers a space for kids and young adults to do their homework, create artwork, play sports and videogames, among other things.

J.B. Yancy, the center’s assistant director, said the larger staff meant the kids got more fieldtrips and one-on-one attention. At the same time, Yancy said, the employees gained interpersonal skills and learned to more effectively communicate with the kids and each other.

Both Yancy and Hatchett said it was tough to see the workers go.

“It was a sad day,” Hatchett said. Some of his former workers volunteer from time to time, and at least one person is attending community college, but most of them are back out looking for work. Hatchett said that how finances are right now, GRIP will have to reevaluate the funding for the three new positions at the end of the year.

Project Pride’s four core employees made a sign with all their names and hung it on the wall, before they left to go back to being unemployed. “As soon as the workers were all gellin’ together,” Yancy said, “it had to end.”

Gerald Dunbar, the program’s coordinator in Contra Costa County, said the loss of these federally subsidized jobs means more people back on welfare. “I see continuing in a rather bleak circumstance,” he said.

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