In East Hartford, a new effort to help workers left behind
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[December 07, 2019]
By Jonnelle Marte
EAST HARTFORD, Conn (Reuters) - For the
first time in a while, Diomedes Dilone is earning enough money that he
can afford to take the weekends off.
Until February, Dilone was waking up at 3 a.m. to drive for Uber, but
the money wasn't enough to cover his bills. The Navy veteran and married
father of two would split his shift between the morning and afternoon so
that he could shuttle other workers to and from their office jobs. He
supplemented his earnings with savings, food stamps and Medicaid.
Then his wife brought home a flyer about a new training program. After
two months learning about jet engines and manufacturing, he landed a
$35-an-hour job as a quality inspector for aerospace heavyweight Pratt &
The 37-year-old is an example of a common theme Federal Reserve Chair
Jerome Powell has encountered in his travels across the country: Eleven
years after the financial crisis, large pockets of American workers are
only now starting to feel the benefits of the longest economic expansion
in U.S. history.
Yes, more people overall are working. The number of people with
part-time jobs who want to work full time is now back to pre-recession
levels. The share of prime-age workers, ages 25 to 54, who are either
working or looking for work is rising.
The U.S. Labor Department on Friday reported the jobless rate edged down
to 3.5% in November, the lowest in 50 years.
For many workers, though, the national headlines about low unemployment
do not match their reality of working multiple low-wage jobs, coupled
with a patchwork of state and federal benefits, to pay the bills.
Still, there are signs that optimism is beginning to spread. The number
of discouraged workers, or people who had given up hope of finding a
job, fell to 325,000 in November, nearly 30% lower than a year earlier
and a 12-year low.
And in some hard-to-reach communities like East Hartford, Connecticut,
where nearly a fifth of office buildings sit vacant, things are finally
starting to look a bit better.
Companies in Pratt & Whitney's position, hard pressed to fill vacant
jobs, are going to greater lengths than ever to find and train
prospects. They are looking at less-traditional candidates like Dilone,
who may not have been on their radar as little as five years ago.
The aviation engine manufacturer partnered last year with the
Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology, a nonprofit that helps
companies improve their technology and to train and recruit employees.
They recruited from high schools in urban areas, technical high schools
and community organizations across the state. Seventy-five trainees have
graduated from the program so far, including 11 workers from East
Hartford, more than from any other town.
'THEY NEED A CHANCE'
In this Connecticut town of about 50,000 people, the benefits of the
recovery are often overshadowed by hardship. The share of office space
sitting vacant has nearly tripled over 10 years. Median home values are
still below their pre-recession peak. The median household income in
neighboring Glastonbury is more than twice East Hartford's $50,000.
Demographics have shifted, too. As of 2018, about 34% of the population
was Hispanic like Dilone, who was born in the Dominican Republic, up
from 15% in 2000, according to Census data.
Dilone's leg up was assisted by East Hartford Connects, an initiative
designed to boost the local economy and lift the median income. Launched
as part of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston's Working Cities
Challenge, which aims to improve the lot of struggling communities in
New England, it gave him a stipend covering two months of living
expenses while he was training.
Program leaders found a stark divide between those who make less than
the median income and those making more, said Amy Peltier, director of
East Hartford Connects. Those earning less were less likely to own a
home, have a bank account or save for an emergency.
[to top of second column]
U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell and Federal Reserve Bank of
Boston President Eric Rosengren attend a presentation by the East
Hartford CONNects, a Working Cities Challenge initiative, and
community residents project in East Hartford, Connecticut, U.S.,
November 25, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
And yet many of them had jobs - often more than one. Peltier said
her staff encountered single parents who would add hours if they
could afford child care, and people who had lost jobs for lack of
"They're employed, but they're drastically underemployed making
these low wages, and they're never going to make enough to get over
the hump," Peltier said.
So the program provides participants with transportation cards,
affordable child care and financial help. Leaders help trainees find
tutoring or remind them to wear business casual attire.
Initiatives like East Hartford's are drawing more attention from
national policymakers like Powell, who has expressed consternation
about the limits of what a powerful institution like the Fed can
achieve by tweaking interest rates, its primary lever for helping
"We try to create a strong labor market," Powell said on a recent
visit here with Boston Fed President Eric Rosengren. "For many, many
people, and many, many communities that's enough."
"But for people who are at the margins, the low- to moderate-income
community, that's not enough," Powell said. "They need a chance."
SPREADING THE GAINS
East Hartford Connects hopes to improve more than the local job
The town is demolishing a long-abandoned movie theater complex and
marketing it to developers. Elementary school students who used to
dart across a highway exit ramp to get to school from an affordable
housing community are now guided by fencing, a crosswalk and a
Dilone said he is still adjusting to his new situation. Driving for
Uber, he tried to work until he made about $750 a week after gas,
enough to cover basic living expenses. But the unpredictability
"You go out and you don't know how much you're going to make," he
said. "There were days it was Sunday night, and I was barely
reaching my goal."
Now, he has a mortgage from the Department of Veteran Affairs and
owns his first home. He no longer needs food stamps or Medicaid, and
he is saving for retirement and more.
It also feels odd sometimes to have so much free time.
"It feels extremely weird because it feels like I'm doing something
wrong," said Dilone, who moved to New York City from the Dominican
Republic as a child. He was always taught by his father, who used to
own a bodega, to work hard.
"But sometimes I look back and say, well I'm going to spend the
weekend with my kids."
(Reporting by Jonnelle Marte; Editing by Dan Burns and Andrea Ricci)
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