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 & Whitney.

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.

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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 reliable transportation.

"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 the economy.

"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 market.

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 crossing guard.

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 weighed.

"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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