Tenants at the Dwight Co-op Homes got to return to work Tuesday thanks to a crew of city-hired day laborers who came to the rescue with shovels.
The city hired the 21 day laborers Monday to help clean up the messy aftermath of Winter Storm Nemo, which dumped 34 inches of snow on New Haven, followed by sleet and rain.
The laborers came to the city through a temp agency called Kaiser Whitney Staffing at 59 Elm St. The city was able to hire the extra help, at $9.25 per hour, in part because President Obama declared Connecticut in a state of emergency, enabling the city to get reimbursed for 75 percent of cleanup costs, according to Erik Johnson, director of the Livable City Initiative, the city’s anti-blight agency.
Mark Cappabianca (pictured) and many of the other workers hailed from a Howard Avenue halfway house for adults returning from prison run by Project MORE. Cappabianca said a slew of guys from the Walter Brooks House all walked downtown together Monday morning through the driving rain in search of work. Cappabianca, a painter by trade, said it has been hard to find work, especially in the winter. He looked forward to making a few extra bucks.
Johnson coordinated four teams of workers Monday. From 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., the crews hit four spots around town. They cleared sidewalks and parking lots at four schools, Conte/West Hills, Columbus Family Academy, Hill Regional Career High, and Roberto Clemente Leadership Academy. Around 4 p.m., Cappabianca and others headed to the Dwight Co-op apartment complex at 99 Edgewood.
Johnson said while his crews focused on public property, he included the private complex because of the history of problems there. The cooperative housing complex has a troubled history: The city foreclosed on the property in 2010 and sold it to a Bridgeport developer with a spotty financial record, Garfield Spencer, who dragged his feet on repairs.
“There’s been issues with the owner,” said Johnson Monday. “I feel responsible for making sure we take care of these people.”
At the Dwight Co-op, he was greeted by frustrated tenants still trying to dig out of their long driveway and parking lot.
Cornell Green, Sr., who works as a unionized custodian at Hillhouse High School, said he missed two days’ pay because he couldn’t get his car out. His son, Cornell Green, Jr., got called into work at IKEA Monday but had to decline. Another tenant, a nurse, said she had missed four days’ work at a Hamden nursing home.
As temperatures began to drop Monday afternoon, tenants were busily shoveling to make way for their Tuesday morning commutes. Around 4:15 p.m., a van pulled up.
Ten men got out and walked down the driveway with shovels. They stopped before a pile of snow and got instructions from a city parks department supervisor.
“We have to move this mountain,” one worker translated into Spanish for another.
“Really?” said the other.
They dug in.
The “mountain” of snow was getting in the way of cars making a crucial turn to exit the lot.
Jose Martinez pushed his foot on a city-issued shovel and heaved away a big scoop of snow.
The team made quick work of the assignment.
“We’re grateful, very grateful,” said tenant Denise LaBoone. She said she planned to leave at 6 a.m. Tuesday to drive to her job as a material analyst at Sikorsky in Stratford. “What a difference. More hands, more help—everything works out a little better.”
Erik Johnson said he plans to reassemble the crews Tuesday morning for more work. The workers get paid $9.25 an hour. The rate is a dollar higher than state minimum wage, but less than the city’s living wage, which aldermen raised to $14.67 two years ago. The day laborers don’t get the higher rate because they are temporary, part-time workers, Johnson said.
At the mayor’s request, Johnson planned to assign one crew Tuesday to dig out the 25 most vital downtown bus stops. Johnson said he doesn’t need extra hands beyond the workers hired Monday. He said the focus will be on public schools, sidewalks and bus stops.
Cappabianca said he planned to be there.
“I hope to work all week—as much as I can,” he said.