One Woman Battles For 23 Jobs

September 25, 1994|By Harold Jackson | Harold Jackson,Sun Staff Writer

Rita Wilburn has watched her husband die from a gunshot wound and has seen a daughter killed in a house fire. None of that has stopped the mother of six from trying to be a success in life.

Mrs. Wilburn, a high school dropout, returned to school as an adult to get her diploma. She learned the insurance business well enough to become a top agent. And this year she began learning a new skill -- construction -- to help her set up in business.

That last step, however, has taken Mrs. Wilburn off course.

Instead of learning how to use a jackhammer, she's at the center of a battle with the Baltimore Housing Authority, which runs a construction apprenticeship program for public housing residents. Now, dozens of people in the Step Up program are looking to her for leadership as they protest the city's moves to cut their wages -- and to lay off nearly two dozen participants.

"The people are looking up to me," says Mrs. Wilburn, who avoided the Sept. 16 layoffs, but refuses to return to work under Step Up's current management. "It's like they're saying, 'You didn't have to stand up for this, but you did. You put yourself on the line for us.' "

Mrs. Wilburn, 42, a Cherry Hill resident, faces long odds as she fights to get the Step Up workers' jobs restored. Baltimore Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III says there just isn't enough money to run the program as established in January. A week ago -- after being blocked in an attempt to cut the program's wage scale -- he laid off 23 of the 73 participants.

The odds have been against Mrs. Wilburn before.

She grew up in East Baltimore, and dropped out of Dunbar High School in the 10th grade. She married Gregory Randle and they had two children, but she lost her husband when he was shot accidentally by a nephew who was playing with a gun. "He was shot in front of my eyes on Christmas Eve 1972," Mrs. Wilburn says.

To support her children, she worked as a cook and sold encyclopedias, and decided to go back to school, too. In 1977 she finally got her high school diploma through a community college program.

In 1984, tragedy again struck.

"Somebody threw a Molotov cocktail in my house," Mrs. Wilburn recalls. "There had been an argument at this bar and somebody running from gunshots ran into my house, in the front door and out the back. I told the people chasing him I didn't know the man, but they must have set my house on fire in retaliation."

Mrs. Wilburn tried to save her three children by getting them to jump out of a window of the house in the 1500 block of N. Washington Street. She escaped with 2-year-old Fannie, but 14-year-old Rita was burned over a third of her body and Elaine, 13, died in the blaze.

"They found the man who set the fire," she says. "I will never forget him. He was sentenced to life plus 40 years."

A marriage in 1987 to Raynault Wilburn resulted in four more children, among them Mrs. Wilburn's first boy, a twin born five years ago. The Wilburns are separated now but she says Mr. Wilburn helps support his children. Meanwhile, Mrs. Wilburn persevered, working at various jobs, including those of security guard and secretary. At Johns Hopkins Hospital, she was responsible for making sure the medical and surgical intensive care units were stocked with supplies.

Her next venture held the promise of a career: She enrolled in courses offered by A. L. Williams Insurance Co. to sell life and health insurance. Later, she added courses offered by the American Automobile Association to obtain licenses to sell property and casualty insurance.

"She really skyrocketed," selling two or three policies every week, said John Johnson, who was her supervisor before A. L. Williams was taken over by Primerica Financial Services. "Rita's good with people and that's what you have to be when you're selling insurance."

That success in selling insurance "to all my relatives and friends," led Mrs. Wilburn to begin planning to lease her own office -- and brought her to the Step Up program.

Last fall, when she heard about the program -- designed to wean public housing residents off government aid -- she decided to stop writing insurance policies and sign up. She thought she could earn money and learn construction skills that would allow her to renovate the office space she had in mind. So, she enrolled in the program, which started in January.

Everything was working out -- until the wage dispute erupted.

In July, the Step Up director, Samuel B. Little, tried to change the wage scale, cutting the top hourly wage from $11.75 to $8.50. He also tried to lengthen the time needed to reach the top of the scale.

When more than 40 Step Up participants refused to sign new agreements that included the reduced wage schedule, they were fired by Mr. Little. After they responded with daily picketing of City Hall, the Housing Authority's Mr. Henson announced that all 73 Step Up workers would be fired and only 50 selected by lottery rehired.

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