CINCINNATI — After losing one restaurant job this year when her employer filed for bankruptcy protection and a second when an injury made it impossible for her to lift heavy boxes, Denise Hayes decided she needed to find work in a different industry.
A friend told Hayes she might be able to get a construction job if she took an online class to get a safety certification. She called the Cincinnati-Hamilton County Community Action Agency to find out if Hamilton County’s Rapid Re-Employment Initiative could help.
Hayes ended up being able to take the online course for free and landed a job with a local company on her own. But Gary Pottebaum with the Rapid Re-Employment Initiative still helped by ensuring she had everything she needed to start her new job.
“Anything I needed. He actually got every piece of clothing I needed so I didn’t get cold during the winter. I got all Carhartt everything,” Hayes said. “They got my boots for me, my jumper so I’m warm. They pretty much got me together.”
That’s exactly what the Rapid Re-Employment Initiative has been working to do, said Pottebaum, the director of transition and community employment at Easterseals Serving Greater Cincinnati. The Community Action Agency refers people to Easterseals, Cincinnati Works and Urban League of Greater Southwestern Ohio for help.
“There’s a lot of folks out there who are in need that COVID impacted,” Pottebaum said. “Every person I’ve interacted with, my goal has been to do everything I can to put them in as good or a better situation then they were in before COVID disrupted their lives.”
Launched in October, the Rapid Re-Employment Initiative has helped roughly 140 Greater Cincinnati residents and counting. The program got a total of $500,000 in federal CARES Act dollars from Hamilton County. The nonprofits involved in the program can pay people while they get training and can help remove barriers to employment for people whose lives have been turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic and economic crisis.
“So if you have transportation issues, child care issues, you need money for boots, for uniforms, for dress clothes, we can provide all that,” said Mark Lawson, Community Action Agency’s president and CEO.
But there’s a problem, Lawson said: “Unless Congress acts, all these funds expire Dec. 30.”
‘Every moment is precious’
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown said he and other federal lawmakers are working to change what he called “an absolutely stupid rule” that requires local government to spend the federal funds by that date.
“I’m fully on board to extend the deadline,” Brown said, adding that the change could be considered as part of the new COVID relief legislation that Congress is working to pass before the end of the year. “I’m certainly hopeful we can fix that.”
Lawson said he would like to see the deadline extended well into 2021.
“Really into September of next year,” Lawson said. “I see the need going that far. And then we’d be able to use this money going forward and helping folks. And if it works, then we could get more to help folks going forward.”
The number of people who need the help hasn’t let up since the initiative started, said Jessica Wright, the Urban League’s director of employment connections.
“We have been slammed,” Wright said. “We are seeing folks who are coming for retraining and up-skill training. We are utilizing a lot of these funds for what we’re calling 'earn as you learn.'”
That’s where people can get paid while they’re learning new skills and getting comfortable with technology that they haven’t had to use in the past. Wright said.
“Right now, every moment is precious,” she said. “You can’t afford to waste a moment at all.”
Rather than new training, some people need help figuring out how the skills they developed in one industry can be useful for getting a job in a completely different industry, Lawson said.
“A good example is a restaurant server who loses their job in a restaurant that closed,” he said. “It’s hard to get a job back in that industry, but you know you’re a people person and you like a lot of action. So maybe you’re great for logistics.”
At Cincinnati Works, employment coaches and staffing specialists work to help people figure out how their experience can apply to new industries and which opportunities offer the best chance for a rewarding career, said Billie Vega, a Cincinnati Works staffing specialist.
“We do a little bit of goal setting. We talk about what are some struggles you’re currently facing, and we’re able to have one-on-one sessions with them to make changes to their resumes to make it more fitting to another employer,” Vega said. “It’s not just about getting a job. We want to be able to help you keep that job, sustain that job and help you to grow.”
That’s what Hayes wants to do, she said.
‘The feeling of no worries’
With a felony conviction on her record, Hayes doesn’t qualify for any government assistance. She wants a job that pays enough to cover her bills and will allow her to advance, she said.
She was making $10 an hour at the last fast-food restaurant where she worked, Hayes said, and worked a late-night shift that required her to lift 50-pound boxes to restock the restaurant at night. At her new job, she’s earning $13 an hour working a daytime shift. She’s guaranteed 40 hours a week, she said, and she expects to see her pay increase to $16 an hour after 90 days on the job.
Now Hayes said she’s sleeping better than she has in months.
“It’s the feeling of no worries because I don’t have to struggle, you know?” she said. “So that’s a beautiful thing.”
Plus, Hayes said she knows that she can count on Pottebaum for help and support.
He told her if this job doesn’t work out for some reason, he can help her find a different job in the industry that paid well.
And during her first week of work, Pottebaum called Hayes to ask if he could bring her some food to help her out until she received her first paycheck. When he stopped by her work site with a big box, she worried about how she would be able to get it all home on the bus.
“He’s like, ‘text me when you’re off,’” Hayes said. “I told him I was off. He even got an Uber to bring me home and all the stuff because he knows I don’t get food assistance.”
The ribs, potatoes and asparagus that Pottebaum gave Hayes lasted for several days, she said, and she had peanut butter and jelly, canned goods and oatmeal to carry her through until she got paid.
Like Lawson, Pottebaum is hoping the Rapid Re-Employment Initiative can continue into 2021 so Easterseals and the other organizations involved can keep helping people like Hayes.
“Every single last person that’s been referred to us, we want to make sure we’ve impacted them in a positive way,” he said. “We’re hoping and praying that there’s an extension. We’re hoping and praying that there are more CARES Act dollars. If not, how can we spend every dime we can to help folks?”
Help through the Rapid Re-Employment Initiative might still be available but isn’t guaranteed. For more information, contact Beverly Schurig at Community Action Agency at (513) 924-2045 or BSchurig@cincy-caa.org.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO 9. To reach Lucy, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.