Posted on 02 April 2010.
- Bronx residents lined up outside a Workforce 1 job center in February. (Zabaneh/Bronx Ink)
Story by Shreeya Sinha, Lynsey Chutel and Sunil Joshi
While the national jobs figure for March indicated that the country is on the path to economic recovery, the employment picture in the Bronx was not so sanguine. Unemployment in the borough remains several points above the national average, and thousands of residents are still unable to find work.
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Above the bustling business hub of 149th Street and Third Avenue, rows of almost 50 people sat on Thursday in a cordoned-off waiting room in the Workforce 1 office, looking for help from the Bronx branch of the citywide employment agency.
This was Veronica Eaddy’s second time at the “one-stop employment center.” With a soft round face under thick waves, in a casual jeans and T-shirt, Eaddy, who asked that her full name not be used, doesn’t look her age at 42. But the string of jobs she has tried her hand at reveal a long struggle with unemployment. “I’ve been through many systems where a job has been promised and nothing happened,” Eaddy said.
Nationwide, there may be reason for optimism after the jobs report revealed that the depressed economy may be turning around. The U.S. Department of Labor announced on Friday that 162,000 jobs were added to the national economy, though the nationwide unemployment rate remained steady at 9.7 percent. But an increase in the national jobs number does not necessarily correlate to an increase in the number of jobs in the Bronx, said James Brown, an analyst with the New York Department of Labor. “There’s not a one-for-one increase,” he said. For Bronx job-seekers like Eaddy, economic struggles are still festering.
“You pretty much need a master’s degree to pick up the garbage,” said Eaddy, who feels that living in the Bronx has been a disadvantage for her. She’s spent the last seven years looking for a full-time job. Unemployment in the borough soared to 14 percent in January, well above the national average. Hunger and poverty are stark realities in the borough that is already struggling to compete with a higher-skilled workforce.
“That doesn’t bode well for the Bronx, which has a pretty high percentage of the local workforce that doesn’t have high levels of educational attainment,” said Jonathan Bowles, director of the Center for an Urban Future, a research firm.
About half of Bronxites work outside the borough, Brown said. Many of these jobs in the hospitality and retail sectors are not only low-paying but largely dependent on consumer spending, which has sunk deeply in the recession. Analysts are hopeful that consumers will grudgingly start spending. Consumer spending picked up for the sixth month running in March.
“A lot of establishments are closing,’’ Eaddy said. “There aren’t many jobs that you could get if you come straight off school, like low-skilled jobs. And most of them can be pretty crap.”
Arthur Merlino, manager of Workforce 1, has worked in the labor market for 48 years, crisscrossing labor offices across the city’s five boroughs. After two years managing the Bronx branch, he admits that the borough poses a specific challenge. “This is a real serious time,” said Merlino, his eyes closing as he spoke. “I’d say, experientially it’s been a very difficult couple of years.”
Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. has made economic development and job creation a priority but critics have accused him of costing the Bronx thousands of jobs at a mall he opposed at the Kingsbridge Armory. Diaz opposed the project on the grounds that it would not provide Bronxites living wages. The City Council voted against the mall.
Franck Strongbow, associate director of the James Monroe Senior Center agreed with Diaz. After he spent eight months living “between a rock and a hard place,” Strongbow lived paycheck to paycheck when he was 25 years old trying to make ends meet. For him, a job is all about dignity. “What the borough president was saying was, “Let’s start with affordable living range because people should be paying an honest day’s labor.” According to the Center for Urban Future, 42 percent of the Bronx workforce is making less than $10 an hour.
The payroll company Automatic Data Processing said this week that U.S. employers cut 23,000 jobs in March, dampening expected forecasts ahead of Friday’s job report. Much of the nationwide growth in March was in temporary government jobs, particularly by the Census Bureau, which hired 48,000 temporary employees, according to the Department of Labor, including enough staff for four Census offices in the Bronx.
Elsewhere, there are signs of life in the borough’s jobs market. A coalition of construction workers in the Bronx said it has seen employment opportunities tick upward in March, with more activity on job sites. While the overall number of new building permits issued in the Bronx during the first three months of the year is down from 2009 — 44 to 18 — there were eight new building permits issued in the Bronx in March (up from four last year), according to the Department of Buildings. Richard Rodriguez, an administrator for United Hispanic Construction, said that his labor coalition was able to connect more workers with jobs in March, particularly with a new development on 163rd Street in Morrisania.
Despite the real-estate market’s more than two-year struggle, prices in Manhattan remain high, fueling new development in the outer boroughs, said Ken Margolies, director of organizing programs at the Cornell School of Industrial Labor Relations. But while Margolies noted the signs of improvement, he cautioned against unbridled optimism. “The key thing about the news,” he said, “is that, by and large, the new jobs that are being created pay less than the ones that are being lost.”
The manufacturing sector is another industry that saw accelerated growth in March, according to the Institute for Supply Management, a private trade group. In February about 11,000 jobs were created, the largest increase in almost four years. Other sectors like health care have also done well, especially after President Obama’s health care plan passed. In March, 27,000 new health care jobs were added to the national economy, according to the Department of Labor.
That’s where Eaddy hopes to try her luck. She’s optimistic that the health care reform will revitalize jobs in this sector. “Since there was such a push going on in public health, I think that a lot of jobs are going to start that I want to get into while the getting in is good,” she said. Eaddy is trying to secure a voucher from the New York State Department of Labor that will cover a six-month-long Medical Billing and Coding course at Hostos Community College. Waving a manila folder on Thursday, with the college brochure inside, she checked that she had all her documentation. She had been waiting for move than an hour for her 4 p.m. appointment.
While she waits for a steady job, Eaddy decided to start her own business. “Splendidly Me,” a cosmetic business that she runs out of her East 180th Street apartment, supplements her income. When she is not teaching customers how to make coconut oil or twist their hair, Eaddy is pinning her long-term hopes on the health care industry.
“Now I have to come back,” she said, “but this time I’m doing something smart with a marketable skill so that I can have some leverage.”