The unemployment rate in the Bronx dropped below 10 percent for the first time in five years this September, according to the New York State Department of Labor. Still, these borough residents said they have to hustle to stay above the poverty line.
Across the street from the Number 2 train stop at East Tremont and Boston Road stands an NYCHA building rented by Phipps Neighborhoods, a non-profit organization that offers affordable housing and social services to low-income residents.
Behind the buzzer-locked door at the Phipps Career Network Center, Mereann Feliz, 21, of the South Bronx, waited in the lobby on a recent Monday afternoon. Feliz just completed Career Network: Healthcare, an 11-week health and professional training program that launched in March. She said she landed an internship interview at Montefiore Health System for that coming Friday, so she wanted to check in with her adviser and get her paperwork in order.
“I’m ready. I’ve been ready,” Feliz said with a smile.
Before joining the program, Feliz answered phones at a Phipps Neighborhoods childcare community center. At the reception desk, she saw a flyer advertising the new health program that partnered with Montefiore and Hostos College.
“If I didn’t start this program, I would just be waiting for the next school semester to start,” Feliz said. Now, she aims to work in hospital administration, a career that pays nearly $17 dollars an hour at the entry level. “If you take it and you do well here, you’ll actually get a job. The hospital says you can move up,” she said.
The Career Network program is mainly funded by private grants from organizations like JPMorgan and Chase—not the state—explained Monique De La Oz, the director of career services at Phipps. She said private money gives her organization the flexibility to offer students a modest stipend, and to form partnerships with local non-profits and schools to develop training programs that lead to real careers.
“We’re really trying to break the cycle of poverty,” said De La Oz.
DRIVE FOR MORE
At the Department of Labor Bronx branch on Webster and Fordham Road, job seekers head up eight floors to the Workforce1 Career Center. Rafel Mendez, a west Bronx resident who is soon to be a father of two, walked out of the office shaking his head on a recent Tuesday.
“I’m here trying to get a voucher for a CDL truck driver’s permit, but they are asking for 24 months experience,” Mendez said. He pointed to a list of commercial drivers license requirements the Department of Labor officials had handed him. “I have to take classes. How do you pay for those? And if you don’t already have a CDL, how do you get experience? You have to work your way up somehow.”
Mendez said four years ago, he first had to enter the Workforce1 program to collect unemployment. He said after dealing with what he called “justice issues,” he had a hard time finding a job. But through Workforce1, Mendez was awarded a federal grant for technical school. He earned his certificate and found a job as an auto technician at a dealership in New Rochelle.
“Right now, I’ve got my dream job, but I would love to go higher. Reach for more,” said Mendez.
He said his wife works as a school bus driver and makes good money, but her hours fluctuate depending on her route. Plus, he said, by this summer his wife won’t be able to work.
“I’m about to have another kid. The job I have right now, that helps me check to check. Welfare says I’m making too much,” Mendez said. “I have bills. I have to bring food to a kid that drinks a gallon of milk in less than two days.”
Mendez said he will figure something out. “In my way, I’m a person that don’t give up. The more they deny me, the more I look for. They help you here, but out of 100 percent, I give them 45. You do most of the effort to get the job,” he said.
DEALING WITH THE MIDDLE MAN
Juliet Pryce, a resident of Kingsbridge, did not find the help she needed at the Department of Labor. She said she rushed to the Department of Labor office after work to file a complaint about her new job. Pryce said a home care agency hired her a few months ago through Back to Work, a program at the NYC Human Resources Department of Social Services. “Since September ninth I start working, but no pay for three weeks now,” Pryce said.
Pryce said she called the agency headquarters and the payroll office repeatedly, but found no answers. “They can’t tell me nothing. I’m supposed to get paid every week,” she said. “The cable bill is going to be turned off tomorrow the first. My cell phone bill. How am I supposed to work with no pay?”
Pryce grasped onto the bit of help the Department of Labor gave her: a paper listing the number for the state Division of Labor Standards. She punched the digits into her cell phone—the phone she said she could not afford without her checks. When the machine picked up, Pryce left a voicemail.
Then, at a quarter to five, Pryce left the Department of Labor branch and headed to the NYS Human Rights office down the street. She said in the Back to Work program, she learned she could go there if she had a problem. For the second time that day, Pryce entered a towering glass government building and took the elevator up to her last resort.
“Excuse me, is this the office for human rights? I’d like to make a complaint about an agency,” Pryce said to the office secretary, who sat behind a wall of Plexiglas. Pryce’s exchange with the secretary ended within a minute. She left the office with another piece of paper.
“She said complaint hours are over. She gave me a form to fill out,” Pryce said. “So, I bring it back tomorrow.”
In the hallway, Pryce waited for the elevator doors to spring open with that familiar hopeful bell ding.
“Man, I wanted somebody to help me today,” Pryce said with a final shake of her head.