From city to job, and ride is free

Employees: Five Baltimoreans will be able to work at a shop in Ellicott City with the help of transportation provided by the `reverse commute' pilot program.

November 18, 1999|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

For Bill Danos, Pigtown is like heaven.

The Southwest Baltimore neighborhood with the funny name is where the Ellicott City bagel shop manager found what he needs most, and what otherwise rich suburbia can't supply -- eager employees.

Yesterday, the five best prospects from among the 40 people who applied for his $6.50-an-hour jobs at Einstein Bros. Bagels arrived for orientation in taxicabs, courtesy of the federal, state and county governments.

They are the first group of what could eventually be hundreds of West Baltimore job-seekers benefiting from a so-called "reverse commute" pilot program that pays for transporting them from the impoverished West Baltimore empowerment zone, where jobs are scarce, to Howard County, where unemployed workers are just as rare. Regular public transportation is not available.

Boise Cascade Office Products in Elkridge also hired two Baltimoreans for $10.43-an-hour late-shift warehouse jobs, said Sharon L. Carmody, senior human resources specialist.

Public buses don't operate in Elkridge after 6 p.m., she said, making it hard to get late-shift workers. "The reverse commute program is all we have to fall back on," she said.

Although viewed as a short-term solution to a fundamental problem of poor public transportation in the suburbs, the program could be a lifeline for Howard employers faced with Maryland's lowest unemployment rate, 1.8 percent.

"I never have anybody to choose from," Danos said, explaining that, normally, he has to hire any warm body he can find. "In Howard County, it's like there's nobody out here. I'm in a pretty wealthy neighborhood."

His store is on U.S. 40 West at the entrance to Chatham Mall.

Danos selected his employees from applicants at a Baltimore job fair Oct. 27.

For city residents such as Latrica Handy, Ricardo Hahn and Patricia Carter, the banner hung on the Washington Village-Pigtown Planning Council center in the 900 block of Washington Blvd. seemed too good to be true.

The sign promised free rides to the suburban jobs being offered -- something many Pigtown people found a bit hard to believe.

"I was skeptical," said Handy, 27. "But I got in there, and my brain started working."

She came out with a job and that free ride, door-to-door.

A self-described "Army brat" from North Carolina, Handy had been looking for work for months.

"It's been rough," she said, explaining that she was laid off from a staff job at a Towson temp agency and lost her home in a fire. Her daughter, 8, is living with a grandmother.

At 47, Hahn is a Pigtown native with no plans to move, but riding to Howard County for a full-time job sounds good, he said.

"I used to work for a catering company," Hahn said.

He said he had been looking for full-time work for months and won't mind the 4 a.m.-to-noon baker's shift at Einstein Bros.

Carter, 39, left a 19-year food service job at a New Jersey state mental institution to follow her boyfriend to Baltimore, but then couldn't find work. She has no car.

"A lot of people in this area need jobs," she said. "I commend Einstein Bagels."

Danos said he needs a few good people he can depend on to show up ready for work every pre-dawn, and a few friendly, outgoing types to work the counter during the morning rush.

"My biggest issue really has been Monday through Friday from 3 a.m. to 4 p.m.," he said.

Often the high school and college students he finds can't work those hours, Danos said, or don't need the money and don't last.

Cheryl Queen, marketing coordinator for Howard's Office of Employment and Training, said the October job fair included only four employers because it was a test.

"There were so many people coming in, they were bombarded with applications," she said.

Several of the other participating firms are in the final stages of hiring applicants, and the event is considered a great success, Queen said.

Another job fair in Baltimore is planned from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dec. 7 at the Sandtown-Winchester Center, 1114 N. Mount St.

On Dec. 15, a breakfast for Howard County employers looking for workers is scheduled at the Columbia Hilton hotel.

Howard County transportation planner Carl Balser said he is preparing an application for a second-year grant for the reverse commute program.

Queen and Balser said the hope is that the $653,000 federal grant will be repeated for several years.

After that, if more public transportation isn't provided, businesses and workers might have to join in efforts to pay the costs.

"Someone's going to have to dig in their pockets," Queen said.

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