Ron Hantz says he was pretty happy when the District helped him get a new job after being unemployed for a year and a half. Then he started spending most workdays going door to door giving away light bulbs.
A Navy veteran who worked as a mortgage officer for seven years before losing his job, Hantz went to the Department of Employment Services for help. The city got him a job with L.S. Caldwell, a small contracting and employment monitoring firm. The company is part of a new green energy initiative called the District of Columbia Sustainable Energy Utility, whose purpose includes helping District residents find jobs in a “green economy.” L.S. Caldwell used a DOES training program that covers 90 percent of an employee’s salary to help pay for Hantz and 11 others. When Mayor Vince Gray announced he was adding $2 million to the job training budget last year as part of his One City One Hire workforce development initiative, the firm’s boss, Loretta Caldwell, was a featured speaker.
But Hantz says the city isn’t getting its money’s worth. Most days he knocks on doors and hands out energy-efficient light bulbs to residents who happen to be home. Hantz says he’s worried that when the job, which pays $14.50 an hour, ends this spring, he’ll have nothing to show for it.
“For the most part, participants have stumbled along with [L.S. Caldwell] without any clear expectations on how, when or if, we would receive the ‘green job tools’ which would aid us with securing permanent employment,” Hantz wrote to DOES last November, asking them to investigate.
On a recent Friday, Hantz is sitting at a small booth near the entrance of the Home Depot on Rhode Island Avenue NE, talking up efficiency as part of his work. On display are various light bulbs. Flip a switch, and you can see how bright each one is. When a customer can’t find a particular bulb from Home Depot’s stock, Hantz tries to help. That’s not his job, but he does it anyway as a “courtesy.”
Shortly before his shift ends at 1 p.m., his replacement, Cynthia Dudley, arrives. She says she worked for the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency for 22 years before being laid off. She, too, was excited to get training for a green job. But that excitement wore off when it became clear there was little more to the job than giving bulbs away.
“After a while, it became meaningless,” Dudley says.
Their boss, Caldwell, sees things differently. “They are just disgruntled employees,” she says of Dudley and Hantz. She says their jobs are more than just handing out free light bulbs; they also gather information on energy use for the Sustainable Energy Utility, so their official titles are “data collection associates.”
“They were hired to be data collections associates. That was the job,” she says. Caldwell, who ran the D.C. human rights office when Marion Barry was mayor, adds that she’s provided plenty in the way of on-the-job training, improving her workers’ “oration,” “writing,” and “social” skills. Caldwell says one data collection associate has already been hired full-time by a contractor; another is now her full-time executive assistant. “There’s always going to be folks who aren’t happy,” she says.
Maybe, but Hantz and Dudley’s complaints echo a common refrain in District government for decades: that the city’s workforce development programs aren’t getting the job done. High unemployment in poorer neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River has been a persistent and vexing program. The current unemployment rate in Ward 7 is about 14 percent. In Ward 8, it’s about 20 percent. The reasons why so many residents can’t find jobs—including poor schooling, lack of training, and criminal records—are easy to understand but hard to solve.
The mayor, whose campaign platform focused heavily on job creation, has made One City One Hire a signature part of his administration. He and his aides often tout it as an “innovative” success.
Gray has credited One City One Hire with a significant role in reducing the city’s unemployment rate to 8.2 percent. (What’s probably helped more: the District’s many new residents, most of whom appear to have come here for or with a job.)
But current and former DOES employees say the initiative is little more than a repackaging of existing programs.
“These programs are doing the same things and getting the same results,” says one senior DOES official, who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record. DOES records show that the 5,000 new hires Gray credits the program with include more than 1,500 through the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, a longstanding federal program; more than 1,000 through the city’s apprenticeship and First Source law, which have long mandated construction contractors to hire locals; and seven through a senior-oriented job placement program that was around long before One City One Hire.
LL’s sources also note that the agency’s One City One Hire hasn’t tracked how many of the 5,000 new hires are on the job (many employers are in high-turnover industries, like food service) and that the agency’s data overall is unreliable. DOES Director Lisa Mallory says her agency is auditing retention rates, but officials weren’t very helpful when LL tried to see some numbers for himself.
DOES did provide LL the number of new hires by a half-dozen organizations that were part of the mayor’s initial news conference announcing the initiative. They include Georgetown University (zero hires) and George Washington University (one hire). But then officials said they couldn’t provide the totals for the rest of the program because that would violate federal privacy laws.
Data aside, LL didn’t have to look far to find at least one happy customer. Thomas Penny, the general manager at the Courtyard Washington Convention Center, says he’s hired six new District residents he wouldn’t have hired if DOES hadn’t introduced them to him.
Mallory says that kind of aggressive job placement was lacking in previous administrations. She says One City One Hire’s other successes include creating a recognizable brand, bringing a heightened focus on hiring District residents from areas with high unemployment, and making existing programs more efficient.
“For government, this is innovation,” Mallory says. “It may not be for the private sector, but it is for government.”
Just don’t tell that to Ron Hantz.