Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

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Kyla Thurston wanted a better job. The 39-year-old born and raised in Southeast D.C. was tired of working part-time at grocery stores and applying for food stamps to get by. But her felony record makes it difficult to find work.

Kimberly Hicks was trying to add to her resume. She already holds a commercial driver’s license and an equipment engineer operator license, but has had trouble getting enough experience to use the latter.

Both Thurston and Hicks looked to Mayor Muriel Bowser’s workforce development programs in the Department of Employment Services (DOES). But instead of pathways to employment, they found mismanagement and dead ends. They told their stories publicly last week during an oversight hearing for DOES.

Thurston graduated from two separate programs, Project Empowerment and L.E.A.P., short for Learn, Earn, Advance, and Prosper. Both are designed to give them training and help them find permanent employment afterward. She is currently out of work, she tells LL.

Hicks also enrolled in L.E.A.P. The members of her cohort were working toward mechanics’ certifications. But for the first eight months of the program, her class of 15 did not have an instructor, she testified at an oversight hearing last week. Instead of receiving training, Hicks says they were used as “cheap labor” in a government building: painting, mopping, and moving furniture.

When confronted with these stories about the cracks in workforce development programs during her own committee testimony, DOES Director Unique Morris-Hughes said that many people have been successful in L.E.A.P. and Project Empowerment.

“What we have to change is this narrative that you go to a DOES program, go to training, and then you’re placed in a job,” Morris-Hughes said during her committee testimony. “That’s certainly not how the world of work works.”

Although D.C.’s unemployment rate is trending downward, it is still among the highest in the country (compared against states) at 5.6 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The highest rates of unemployment in D.C. are in Wards 7 and 8. Preliminary numbers from March of this year show a rate of 8.8 in Ward 7 and 11.5 in Ward 8. Those figures are down from 9.7 and 12.4, respectively, a year before.

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At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, who chairs the Committee on Labor and Workforce Development that oversees DOES, pushed back on Morris-Hughes’ suggestion that Thurston and Hicks are outliers. During the hearing, Silverman said that several more L.E.A.P. participants have contacted her office to raise concerns.

“How can our residents not be cynical if we say we’ll do something and then we don’t deliver on it?” Silverman says. “I’m in agreement with the Bowser administration on the concept, and I wish I could put money in to expand it. But I know we’re not delivering on what we promise.”

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Thurston enrolled in Project Empowerment in October 2017. The program includes life skills and job readiness courses and six months of subsidized employment. It targets individuals with barriers to employment, such as a criminal record.

Project Empowerment placed Thurston at the First Source compliance office. There, she helped businesses comply with D.C.’s First Source law, which says beneficiaries of large public subsidies must hire District residents for newly created positions.

When the program ended, Thurston enrolled in L.E.A.P. She kept her subsidized position at First Source through April 17, 2019, when she was told there were no funds to hire her on a permanent basis.

She says her coworkers gave her a cake on her last day of work and her supervisor wondered what they would do without her.

Next, her case manager was supposed to help her find another job, but Thurston says “it was like a dog chasing his tail.”

“First they say ‘I got so many other clients, I apologize, I forgot,’” she says. “They put this facade on for you all to make it seem like it’s something very different.”

Still out of work, Thurston says she’s signed up for unemployment benefits and food stamps. She’s applied online for a few jobs, but so far has been unsuccessful, and she can’t afford to pay next month’s rent.

“This is just humiliating,” Thurston says. “I been through all of this for them to just throw you back out on the street with no help or nothing. I will keep my faith and God will work things out for me. But it’s humiliating sitting at home and having nothing to do.”

During the oversight hearing last week, Morris-Hughes declined to talk specifically about Thurston’s situation except to say that DOES staff attempted to connect with Thurston multiple times.

It took LL about 30 minutes to find a working phone number for Thurston, who picked up after the second ring. 

“I’m trying not to go through a mental breakdown, but this is horrible,” she says. “Why do they do people like this? They haven’t contacted me. If that was the case, you wouldn’t have been able to call me. I got the same phone number, same phone.”

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Hicks enrolled in L.E.A.P. in August 2018. The program is designed to give participants on-the-job training within DOES or another District agency. Hicks’ cohort was assigned to the Department of Public Works (DPW), where she expected to earn a mechanic’s Automotive Service Excellence certification at the end of 12 months.

She, like Thurston, was led to believe there would be a permanent job at the end of the program.

“There’s no reason that I shouldn’t be a success story over at this program other than the mismanagement that makes me believe it’s designed to fail,” she said in front of the oversight committee last week. “We are the fourth cohort at the automotive system over at L.E.A.P., at 1833 West Virginia Avenue, and it’s really no success stories.”

Hicks could not be reached for comment, but she testified that after doing odd jobs for the first eight months of the program, her cohort finally began training in early April. With only four months left, the instructor is trying to cram a year’s worth of material into that timeframe. In one day, Hicks says, the instructor tried to cover eight chapters’ worth of material.

“It’s very unfair to us,” Hicks said during the hearing.

Through a spokesperson, Morris-Hughes declined a phone interview, but during her committee testimony last week, she could not explain why Hicks’ cohort went without an instructor.

“My folks are looking into where there might be a disconnect,” she says. “But every intention was made from us. The MOU was signed, funding was there. I’m not sure what happened with that breakdown.”

A week after the hearing, a DOES spokesperson could not provide LL with an explanation, but did provide information on L.E.A.P. participant outcomes. In an email, a spokesperson writes that in 2016 and ’17 nearly 80 percent of residents were hired after successfully completing the program. DOES estimates the median annual income of those people to be about $30,000.

More recent data provided by the Council’s Committee on Labor and Workforce Development shows that only 71 percent percent of participants found work after completing the program, and 25 percent were not hired.

At the oversight hearing, Silverman also referenced statistics from a third workforce development program: the DC Infrastructure Academy (DCIA), which launched in March 2018 as part of Bowser’s efforts to create “pathways to the middle class.” The academy based in Ward 8 provides specialized training for high-paying infrastructure jobs.

Morris-Hughes testified that an estimated 500 DCIA participants completed training programs so far, though only 200, or 40 percent, found permanent jobs.

Silverman points to a list of participants who earned a commercial driver’s license through the program. Some found work as shuttle bus drivers or trash truck drivers, while others are working at Buffalo Wild Wings, at a hair salon, and as a nighttime food stocker at Giant.

Morris-Hughes believes literacy and numeracy challenges are possibly preventing some people from securing gainful employment. At the hearing she promised to provide the labor and workforce committee with information on where the 200 DCIA participants found permanent work.

“I think there’s always opportunities to improve, but now we have 200 Washingtonians that have unsubsidized employment that did not a year ago,” she says. “I think it’s a great place to start from. Obviously I’d love to have 100 percent.”