Hunts Point Works loses its job

City to shut employment center’s doors

By Tatyana Gulko

Photo by Tatyana Gulko
The computer room is empty now at Hunts Point Works. Clients could use the computers in order to create resumes and other documents related to their job search.

Hunts Point resident Edwin Cruz once feared he would become homeless. Now he holds a fulltime job as a maintenance man at Hunts Point Works, the publicly-funded employment agency at 647 Bryant Avenue sponsored by the city’s Department of Small Business Services (SBS).

Cruz speaks readily of his gratitude to the staff of 11 people he now calls his “family.” But now he, and many of them, face the loss of their jobs.

Hunts Point Works will close its doors on June 30, because SBS has not renewed its contract.

Since December, Hunts Point Works has found jobs for 70 to 80 people each month, regularly surpassing its quota, according to Josephine Infante, executive director of the Hunts Point Economic Development Corporation, which manages the program.

A brochure issued by the Bloomberg administration calls it a model that it will replicate in all five boroughs.

Nevertheless, the Department of Small Business Services says it was required by law to shut the program down and begin a new search for an organization to provide the services that Hunts Point Works has been offering.

“Under City procurement rules, we are now required to issue a new request for proposals,” said Kara Alaimo, an SBS spokesman, who insisted that the termination of Hunts Point Works was “not a reflection” on its record.

She added that the SBS is “fully committed to providing workforce services to this community, and expect to issue a contract and have Career Center services fully operational by early next year. In the meantime, our customers will be able to access the same services at the nearby Workforce1 Career Center at 358 East 149 Street in the Bronx or any of the five other centers across the city, and we will continue to work hard to create and sustain employment in Hunts Point.”

Members of the staff of Hunts Point Works say, however, that there is a big difference in the level of service its office and the larger boroughwide offices offer.

“We’re more people oriented,” said David Phillips, an account executive at Hunts Point Works who previously worked at the career center on 149th Street. “We take our time dealing with everyone who comes through the door.”

Account Executive Wanda Alicea agreed. “I become friends with everyone and get to know their needs,” said Alicea, who regularly makes trips to the waiting room to work one-on-one with the job-seekers.

Proposed in the Hunts Point Vision Plan, a blueprint for the neighborhood’s future drawn up by a task force of city agencies, elected officials and local business and community leaders in 2003, Hunts Point Works opened in April 2005.

The task force observed that nearly a quarter of Hunts Point and Longwood residents had no jobs, the highest unemployment rate in New York City. Hunts Point Works was created to recruit, screen and train workers for local employers and to help residents learn English, get high school equivalency diplomas and find training for specific occupations.

Its mission was “to create a mechanism that would open up jobs for the local community,” said Infante.

Hunts Point Works quickly began to surpass its job placement quotas, according to Infante. It has found jobs for more clients than many of the other city-run employment agencies, Phillips said.

Given their success, the employees at Hunts Point Works did not anticipate the abrupt announcement SBS delivered on May 1, explained Alicea.

The closing will “hurt this community,” said Cruz, who not only keeps the employment agency spick-and-span, but is also in the process of learning to drive tractor trailers and city buses via a city-funded training program that George Fraticelli, the career advisor for academic and vocational training at Hunts Point Works, helped him enroll in.

Fraticelli works with people like Cruz who are looking to upgrade their skills, opening doors not only for those looking for a license to drive trucks, but opening people’s eyes to entirely new careers as EMT workers and medical assistants, through the training grants the Hunts Point Works has made available to them.

“To say the system doesn’t work would be a lie,” says Jeffrey Devon, a Bronx resident who attended an orientation the agency held for jobs being offered by Anheuser Busch, which is building a 167,000-square-foot warehouse and distribution facility in the Hunts Point food center that will bring more than 400 permanent jobs to the area.

The huge Hunts Point Market has always been in need of workers, but there was no single place where local residents in search of jobs could learn of openings. Hunts Point Works was the missing piece of the puzzle.

In addition, the Hunts Point Vision Plan observed, employers said many local job-seekers lacked the skills they needed. So Hunts Point Works was charged with connecting them to occupational training programs, to teach them how to prepare fish for sale in the New Fulton Fish Market, for example, in a program that Hunts Point Works advertised as an opportunity to earn a starting salary of $400 a week, with the potential to double within two to three years.

David Rodriguez received an apprenticeship in the fish cutting program for Smitty’s Fillet House, a wholesaler in the market. He was guaranteed employment with Smitty’s upon the completion of his training there. In a testimonial after completing the program, he wrote, “I am living a life long dream thanks to the positive support of the staff over at Hunts Point Works and their endless efforts to better anyone who walks through their door.”

Community Board 2 expressed its dissatisfaction with the closing of the agency during a meeting about the Hunts Point Vision Plan early in May.

“If the city was not pleased with their current provider, they should’ve picked another provider and not shut it down completely for a year,” said District Manager John Robert in a telephone interview in which he praised the employment agency and “the momentum” it had achieved.

Councilwoman Maria Carmen del Arroyo said she was “not even aware that closing was the decision,” and had only learned of it from a reporter’s questions.

Saying, “I knew there was an issue with their contract,” Arroyo added she would schedule a meeting with Robert W. Walsh, the commissioner of SBS, to see if any alternative to closing could be found.

In the meantime, Infante says she wants to make sure that the relationship with businesses can be maintained, even though the local office will be closed. “We need to let everyone know how successful it was and that it needs to come back.”

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