Trying to Absorb the Newly Unemployed

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By Krissah Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 9, 2005

DALLAS, Sept. 8 -- A staffing company recruiter greeted Eugene Francois and his wife, Claressa, as they walked into a job fair at the cavernous Dallas Convention Center on Thursday. He shook their hands and asked what sort of employment the couple sought.

"Any kind of job," answered Eugene, a 34-year-old former New Orleans firefighter. He spent the morning filling out applications for positions at the Dallas County Sheriff's Department, a local warehouse staffing company and a trucking company.

The one-day job fair here attracted about 3,000 Hurricane Katrina evacuees settling into Dallas. It also enticed a few local unemployed residents, some of whom worry that the inflow of new workers will intensify competition for work in an area where jobs -- particularly in low-skill sectors -- are already tough to come by.

The assimilation of Hurricane Katrina evacuees into Texas's big cities and into communities across the country will be far from seamless. Almost all the evacuees are now unemployed, and many are also homeless. They are scrambling to find work so they can get out of the Federal Emergency Management Administration's massive shelters, into apartments and on with their lives.

"I'm looking for something that pays in the double digits, but I'll take $9 [an hour]. I'm by myself. I don't need much," said Theron Cosey, who is living in a shelter for evacuees in the convention center. Cosey worked in the engineering room of a hotel in New Orleans but said he also knows how to drive a forklift. He filled out an application for a position at a Dallas warehouse.

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that 400,000 jobs were lost throughout the Gulf Coast due to Katrina. So far, only an estimated 10,000 workers who lost their jobs have filed for unemployment benefits, the Labor Department said Thursday. That number would have been higher, but many claims offices in the affected region were shut down. The Labor Department predicted that the number of disaster-related claims will rise sharply in coming weeks and that hundreds of thousands of displaced workers will soon be seeking benefits.

Job fairs and training programs are being offered to newly unemployed workers arriving in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Atlanta and other cities. This week, in addition to the Dallas job fair, similar events were held by Goodwill Industries in Shreveport, La., and Atlanta's Workforce Development Agency.

The fair in Dallas was sponsored by the Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce in cooperation with WorkSource, an arm of the Texas Workforce Commission. Originally planned on a smaller scale at a local community college, the Dallas job fair was expanded this week, with companies coming from as far as Florida to offer evacuees jobs.

About 250,000 of those displaced by Katrina have come to Texas. While they make up a relatively small part of the state's overall population, they will be vying for a hotly contested slice of low-skill jobs, said Daniel S. Hamermesh, an economics professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

"Skilled people will certainly find jobs, [but] in terms of unskilled jobs the labor market is pretty tough," Hamermesh said.

The job fair here Thursday reflected that divide. Most of the 225 companies that set up booths were recruiting for nurses, teachers, welders, or other trades and professions that require technical expertise or college degrees. Fewer positions for general labor were available. A recruiter for $10-an-hour meat-packing positions at Tyson Foods said that he often places people in jobs at one of the company's plants in rural Kansas but that fewer positions have been open in Texas.

Over the past few years, the state's unemployment rate has remained around 5 or 6 percent, but that figure does not reflect the increasing competition in the market for low-skill jobs, Hamermesh said. In Texas, those jobs -- mainly in hotels, restaurants, manufacturing and construction -- often are filled by the state's large population of first-generation immigrants from Mexico, he said.

"In south Texas there is a large overhang of temporary and permanent immigrants, so there will be competition there," he said. "The pay level won't be as good as what [people from New Orleans] are used to," he said.

The League of United Latin American Citizens, a national Latino advocacy group, expects the damage to the tourism and service industries in New Orleans to bring greater competition for jobs in the short term but hopes that it might produce job gains in the future.

"Hopefully we will see a construction boom in these devastated areas, and people will come in and help with that. You do see a lot of Hispanic construction workers in those types of jobs," said Gabriela Lemus, director of policy and legislation for LULAC's Washington office.

Concern over service-sector jobs was apparent at the Dallas job fair.

Ramona Rayford, 25, lives in Dallas and has been looking for retail positions for six months. She said her last job was in a clothing warehouse without air conditioning and with low pay.

"It's like [employers] push us out [of] the way. They know the Hispanics will do it and take $7 an hour or $5 an hour," Rayford said. "I know they have it hard, too."

When Dallas residents Tiffany Garcia, 18, and her friend Ricky Alvarado, 19, walked into the job fair, she looked around at all of the former New Orleans residents and poked him. "There is going to be way more competition. We ain't going to find a job."


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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