Get our free newsletter
Like other welfare recipients, Shaw resident Elizabeth Mayes learned in 1996 that her welfare benefits would expire in five years. So Mayes, a mother of two, began attending employment workshops at the nearby United Planning Organization (UPO). When her UPO counselors told her about the MCI Center’s campaign to fill more than 900 positions in large part with Shaw residents, Mayes pounced on the opportunity. After being screened by the city’s Department of Employment Services (DOES), Mayes was referred to a job fair and subsequently hired as a concession vendor. “They told us we’d get about 32 hours a week,” says Mayes. Wages, said MCI officials, would range from $6.75 to $9 an hour.
The MCI Center followed through on its pledge, at least for a few weeks. The Washington Wizards christened the arena with a home winning streak that filled the stands and kept the concessions humming. Then came the midwinter slump, prompted by the Wizards’ poor play, low attendance at Washington Capitals games, and a light schedule of special events. “Between January and February, they just stopped putting us on the schedule,” says Mayes.
For the next few months, she remained on call and worked when summoned by her supervisors. But weeks went by without a call from the arena, leaving Mayes with a pittance or no paycheck at all. She thought the drought was over in June, when her hours picked up again. Mayes recorded the uptick in her income on her monthly public assistance work form, which working welfare recipients are required to complete in order to determine whether they still qualify for a welfare check. Although there was no promise that the good times would continue, Mayes says she received no welfare check for July. “What happened to us?” says Mayes. “We lost our welfare
According to officials with the local Hotel and Restaurant Employees union, Mayes is one of 300 MCI hires who have been eased out of work since the arena opened last December. Like Mayes, many of the employees formerly relied on welfare payments to get by. City officials and MCI Center brass, however, promised them a new livelihood at downtown’s newest marvel, a livelihood of spotty paychecks and erratic scheduling.
When Abe Pollin was casting about for financial help in building his downtown arena, he seized on the buzzwords that make patsies of the grittiest municipal officials: job creation. Whether it’s a sports arena, a convention center, or a theme park on the Anacostia, the prospect of new jobs flattens regulatory barriers and unlocks the city’s coffers.
“I’ve seen this city going downhill instead of uphill. This will be the beginning of the turnaround,” Pollin said of his proposed arena. City officials barely amended Pollin’s pronouncements when they finally nailed down the arena deal: “This is a big win for the city,” said Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans. A win so big, in the District government’s eyes, that they chipped in $50 million in taxpayer dollars to prep the site for the MCI Center.
As the project neared completion, arena officials buttressed the notion of sports arena-as-job program. Mary M. Davis, vice president for human resources for Pollin’s Washington Sports and Entertainment, said last November that the MCI Center would employ at least 900 people in positions ranging from ticket-taker to bartender. And by January of 1998, arena managers said they had created 1,272 new jobs. “We are looking to find people who are outgoing, friendly, polite, and enjoy their work,” said one arena representative.
The Department of Human Services (DHS), which oversees the District’s public assistance program, salivated over the rosy job projections. Like states around the country, the District has to place 30 percent of its caseload in work-related activity by the end of fiscal year 1998. In the MCI Center, DHS had the opportunity to move hundreds of welfare recipients in the Shaw area into jobs and off the welfare rolls. But thanks to the arena’s inflated promises and subpar performance, DHS may see a few fresh faces on the welfare queue.
When Ralph Spain got a concessions job at the MCI Center, he thought he had arrived. Anticipating busy workweeks at the arena, Spain began renting a town house to match his improved income. But when supervisors started cutting his hours, Spain found himself with his regular bills, a heftier rent, and no means to pay them off. “I thought this was a real job, but I’m still playing catch-up,” says Spain. “We’ve got to beg for food and rental assistance. I just called Pepco to put them off.”
Even when Spain works just five or six hours a week, he has to pay his dues to the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Local 25 of the AFL-CIO, the union that represents MCI’s concession workers. The result, Spain says, is paychecks totaling $10 to $15.
When work at the arena is scarce, new hires like Spain and Mayes are the first to get the shaft. Employees of the US Airways Arena have seniority over recent MCI Center hires and thus get the first nod for work in the off-season. “They brought in these people from Maryland and started phasing us out,” says Spain. “Everybody was looking at [the MCI Center] as this grand opportunity, and I was going down like the Titanic.”
Local 25 President John Boardman says he has received numerous complaints from welfare recipients who were booted off the rolls when they were getting consistent hours at the MCI Center; once the work disappeared, he says, the city took nearly two months to sign them up again. “A number of people were misled” says Boardman. DHS officials concede that it can take up to 45 days for a former welfare recipient’s application for reinstatement to be processed. To help the struggling workers, Boardman’s union is now refunding dues to those who have worked very few hours. “They were told these were full-time positions,” says Boardman. “There isn’t a sports arena in the country where that happens.”
Boardman, however, doesn’t blame Pollin & Co. for overselling the arena jobs. Instead, he argues that the city, in a rush to cut its welfare rolls, spread too much icing on the MCI Center deal. “It wouldn’t be inconceivable, given the pressure this Republican Congress has put on the people,” says Boardman. “You put well-meaning people in a position where they end up fudging it.”
DHS released a statement admitting that it had told some welfare recipients that full-time work was available, but only because arena representatives had indicated that it was. “We encouraged hundreds of candidates to apply for jobs at MCI which had been described to representatives of DHS as full-time work,” the statement reads. “We were very disappointed to learn of the limited number of full-time jobs available.”
Susan Gilbert, division chief for DOES, says it told prospective MCI Center employees to expect just what they have gotten: about 20 hours a week. “We gave [prospective employees] all the information we had,” says Gilbert.
MCI officials also say they never promised steady work to the new hires. “Our position is that in all of our meetings it was made clear that this was seasonal work,” says Matt Williams, MCI’s communication officer.
An official with Pollin’s Washington Sports and Entertainment pointed out that most of the workers originally hired are still on MCI’s payroll. “There have been no layoffs,” said the official. Technically, there haven’t been. The Center has adopted a slow-death approach by using employees when they need them, even if it’s only three hours a week, and leaving them in limbo when they don’t.
Wherever the blame lies, the MCI Center hasn’t helped the city much in its drive to place 30 percent of its welfare recipients in jobs. And, according to A. Sue Brown, who heads DHS’s Income Maintenance office, MCI Center workers who can’t make a living at the concessions and ticket booths will have to seek opportunities elsewhere. “The pressure is really on the recipient,” says Brown “Our responsibility is to make sure we help our customers help themselves.”CP