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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Is an Influx of Stimulus Cash Too Much for UrbanFORCE to Handle?

Posted By on Wed, Aug 12, 2009 at 8:01 AM

Thanks to the federal stimulus, Friday, August 7, was payday for hundreds of urban youths. At least, it was supposed to be.

The teens had all found work this summer through UrbanFORCE, a program sponsored by the St. Louis Agency for Training and Employment (SLATE) that matches St. Louis residents, ages 14 to 24, with local businesses looking for workers. The young people would labor through the summer, and their wages would be paid with money from President Obama's stimulus package.

But last Friday afternoon many of the teenagers leaving the Friendly Temple Baptist Church on Martin Luther King Drive did not look happy.

"I didn't get paid," grouses nineteen-year-old Cepeda Whiteside. "I've worked at least 60 hours. I've got kids to take care of."

Seventeen-year-old Melissa Hill, a cell phone to her ear, explains: "They spelled my last name wrong, so now I can't cash my paycheck. How do you get Hikk out of Hill? They gave me this number to call to complain." A few moments later, she snaps the phone shut in disgust. "They gave me a fax number."

Anthony Coleman, who is fifteen, received the correct amount in his pay envelope. "They still owe me my orientation check, though," he says. "It's $100."

UrbanFORCE is one of the city's first beneficiaries of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. On April 24, Vice President Biden came to St. Louis and informed Michael K. Holmes, SLATE's executive director, and Alice Prince, the youth services manager, that UrbanFORCE would be receiving a substantial allotment that would allow them to sponsor 1,611 workers, compared to the usual 300. Prince and Holmes were thrilled.

The only catch: They had to have the program up and running by June 4 -- not a lot of time, considering they had to process 5,000 applicants as well as hire and train more than 50 staff members.

"There was no preparation," Holmes concedes. "Most of our staff was college students. They came home from school May 15, and then the legislature had to decide to accept the stimulus money, so we had to wait for the session to be over."

Nonetheless, dozens of businesses agreed to hire UrbanFORCE workers for six- and eight-week-long assignments. Students have been working for, among other places, KETC-Channel 9, the Union Station Marriott, Ameren UE, Operation Brightside, the St. Louis Department of Health, Mason Cleaning and Monsanto.

"We tried to match our participants' interests with their career goals," says Prince. Depending on their level of education, students earn between $7.25 and $12 per hour which, Prince notes, is above minimum wage.

"It's the first job for a lot of the students," says Jami Dolby, SLATE's communications director.

This was obvious to some employers like Saba Cetawayo, a promoter and talent scout at Platinum Plus Recording Studio in Mt. Pleasant. He started with nine UrbanFORCE workers, but had to fire four of them.

"We had some disciplinary issues," he says. "It was kind of hectic for the business because we were kind of babysitting. You say, 'You got to sweep the floor,' but they were like, 'Ah, man, why do I have to do that, it's hot outside.'"

The real problems began, though, when paychecks started to arrive -- or didn't.

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