State employment program extended through the holidays

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Christmas came early last week to the nearly 27,000 workers enrolled in the state’s Put Illinois to Work program, when Gov. Pat Quinn announced it will be extended through Jan. 15.

When federal funding for the subsidized job program that helps unemployed workers gain new skills expired Sept. 30, Quinn committed $75 million in state money to extend it through Nov. 30.

The six-week extension will cost state taxpayers $47 million and be paid for by bonding a portion of the state’s share of the 1998 tobacco settlement, said Quinn Spokeswoman Kelly Jakubek.

“The reality is that the program is not designed to be permanent. It had an end and will certainly come to an end,” said Virgil Crawford, who works for the Westside Health Authority, which employs 25 workers through the program. “But no one wants to be seen as the Grinch who stole Christmas by taking jobs away from families around the holidays.”

Crawford, along with nearly 250 others, rallied last Monday night in front of the state building at 100 W. Randolph St. to demand an extension of the program through the holidays. At the rally, community members implored the govenor to look for ways to move people into permanent jobs in communities like Austin, which has an unemployment rate hovering at about 20 percent.

Michael Stinson, one of 10 candidates running for the open seat in the 28th Ward and pastor at the First General Assembly Church in Englewood, said that for communities like Austin, an employment program does more than provide jobs.

“With all the violence in Austin and in East and West Garfield, a job is the best anti-violence program out there,” Stinson said.

Since April, the Put Illinois to Work program has cost $200 million and placed nearly 20,000 workers in Cook County. Crawford said thousands of those jobs have been in Austin, though Quinn’s office couldn’t provide a breakdown of the number of jobs by neighborhood.

To qualify for the program, participants must have a household income below 200 percent of the federal poverty level ($2,428 a month for a family of two) and must either be a parent of a minor or 18 to 21 years old.

“We’ve built a lot of human capitol in the program that was not there before. Now the challenge is what to do with that human capitol,” Crawford said. “This doesn’t stop at the steps of the governor’s mansion; it’s time for the federal government to play a role.”

Elce Redmond, community organizer for the South Austin Coalition, which employs four participants, says not only does the federal government need to step in, but it also should recognize the program’s rewards beyond putting people to work.

“These folks in the program are now consumers; they are making car payments, paying for utilities and going shopping in the community,” Redmond said. “Why hasn’t the federal government figured out that it helps the overall economy when people reinvest in the community they live in?”

Tracey Brady stood in the cold Monday night not knowing if she’d have a job beyond Nov. 30.

In April, the Westside Health Authority hired her as an office assistant through the Put Illinois to Work program. The mother of two had been looking for a job for almost two years and was in the last week of getting unemployment benefits.

Last week, the Austin resident feared her days spent making flyers and phone calls in the community organizing department would come to an end after federal funding for the program expired. Then she got the good news.

“It’s a great feeling knowing 26,000 people will have a job over the holidays and not have to worry about the rent or where the next meal is coming from, ” Brady said. “It’s important for me to show my kids that this is what it’s all about: being a productive part of the community.”

Jill Geltmaker, project director for the Put Illinois to Work program at Heartland Human Care Services, which collaborated with the Illinois Department of Human Services on the program, said while it’s not possible for it to last forever, the skills participants learn are as valuable as their $10-an-hour wage.

“The program was designed to give workers a leg up by teaching new skills that would build their resumes and make it possible to get the jobs they never would have been considered for before the program,” Geltmaker said.

Emily Jenkins, owner of Emily’s Daycare in Austin, which employees three participants, says the program has saved her small business money – the state covers the costs of the workers’ wages. And it’s been a joy to teach the workers how to run their own daycare — but not any time soon as she hopes to hire them on after the program ends.

“These ladies are all eager to come to work every day and are always professional,” Jenkins said. “Not only have they put money in my pocket, but they have been great with the kids and for our community.”

An extension of the federal funding is packaged in a larger bill that passed the U.S. House twice but stalled in the Senate after facing Republican opposition. The bill is now pending during  Congress’ lame-duck session.

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