As Jobs Program Expands, Finding Work Is a Challenge

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 28, 2008

City Administrator Dan Tangherlini arrived at work a week ago Friday and walked into chaos. It was payday for the city's summer jobs program, and hundreds of student workers had been underpaid or not paid at all. As the day wore on, hundreds became thousands.

Some students showed up at the Department of Employment Services headquarters. They spilled out the doors and onto the sidewalk in front of the building at 609 H St. NE while employees feverishly loaded debit cards with pay or cut checks.

It was a frustrating moment for city officials who had touted a new debit card that was meant to help end payroll issues, a problem that has plagued the jobs program D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) created as mayor in 1979.

Tangherlini went to the headquarters that Friday, again the next day and several times last week as the department worked to correct the problems.

The days "all kind of blur together," he said.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) ambitiously expanded the program, swelling the ranks from 12,629 last year to 19,000 this summer, making it one of the largest of its kind in the country. But the big numbers have brought big problems for an administration that prides itself on take-charge efficiency.

Keenly aware of the challenges, the city fired its program administrator July 16, two days before the payday glitches. Just as challenging, though, is figuring out how to find meaningful work experiences for all the young workers.

There are programs like the Green Team, a group of 500 students who work on beautification efforts across the city. Last week, group members put down storm drain labels, and the other day they chopped down trees at Marvin Gaye Park, said Aaron Williams, 18, one of the participants.

"I like it," he said, adding that the program includes listening to lectures and watching movies about the environment.

Then there are programs that have been problematic, such as the Washington East of the River Academy in Anacostia, where logistical hurdles delayed it from getting underway for four weeks. Students sat in an auditorium and then in classrooms with little to do. The academy is supposed to offer arts programs to students.

"We just go to a classroom and sit all day" was how one 17-year-old described it. "We can't even talk to each other."

Tangherlini said Friday that he had "moved to close that site" and that all the students would be doing other jobs by today.

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