Program for Black workers fails to find jobs with city 

By Alejandra Reyes Velarde

Contributing Writer 

LOS ANGELES — Tekoah “TK” Flory was thrilled to receive a job offer from the Los Angeles Bureau of Street Lighting last September. Flory had been directing traffic at Dodger Stadium, a seasonal job that would be coming to an end soon.

After taking on a series of minimum wage jobs, Flory, 31, was looking forward to starting a career in a city job he thought would pay $40,000 to $60,000 a year. 

“I was so excited, elated, ready to budget for the year,” said Flory, who uses they/them pronouns. “I was excited to have a career in this city instead of just working a job, instead of being just above broke or just making enough to eat.” 

But in January, the city rescinded the job offer. Flory was back where they started. 

Flory applied for office work in the street lighting bureau through the city’s Workforce Equity Demonstration Program, a partnership between the Los Angeles Black Worker Center and the L.A. Department of Public Works. Participants who get several weeks of training at the Black Worker Center can apply for positions in Public Works without having to take a civil service exam, often a barrier for applicants. 

The partnership contract signed in 2022 promised the city would hire 200 Black workers trained by the Black Worker Center. Trina Traylor, campaign director for the center said the city agreed to hire them by June 2024. 

But so far only 49 of the 83 people trained have been hired. Besides Flory, one other applicant had their job offer rescinded. 

“We are nowhere near that (200) number for different reasons, some that are not clear or satisfactory to us,” said Yodit Semu, a program specialist at the L.A. Black Worker Center’s Ready to Work program. 

While organizers are pleased that some program participants were placed, they fear the slow pace of city bureaucracy is hindering opportunities for other Black workers.

Meanwhile, as the city faces a 17.5% job vacancy rate, Mayor Karen Bass is moving to cut vacant jobs to deal with a budget deficit.  

“It is vital that Black workers have access to jobs offered by the city and across the city and the mayor will continue work to make sure the current economic picture does not roll back that commitment,” Zach Seidl, a spokesperson for the mayor, said in an email.

The public works department did not grant interviews and said they would send a written response to questions. They did not by deadline.

Since the Reconstruction Era, when the U.S. Postal Service first hired formerly enslaved Black workers, the public sector has long been a source of good jobs for Black people, according to a 2020 report by the UCLA Labor Center.

One in five Black workers in Los Angeles County works in government, compared to one in 10 non-Black workers, the report says. In L.A. County, Black workers in the public sector make 46% more than counterparts working in the private sector. And about 44% of Black public sector workers owned homes, as opposed to 28% of Black private sector workers. 

“There’s this general saying in Black communities of, ‘Get you a good government job,’” said DéjàThomas, the report’s coauthor. “The data affirmed that. Black workers in the public sector were faring better when it came to income, insurance, home ownership — all those metrics of socioeconomic status.”

And Black government workers enjoy better job benefits and protections than workers at other jobs, because those are union jobs that include built-in raises.

Now Black workers are retiring at high rates, with no pipeline to replace them, said Thomas, who also is a program manager for UCLA’s Center for the Advancement of Racial Equity at Work.

The COVID-19 pandemic worsened employment opportunities for Black workers. 

Black workers lost jobs at higher rates than other demographic groupsduring the pandemic and have not recovered them to the same extent as other groups, said Sarah Bohn, a labor economist with the Public Policy Institute of California. 

Unemployment among Black workers is 7.4% compared to 5% for the state overall, Bohn said. 

“The discrimination piece is a really important one to think about, because it’s not just educational attainment and where you live or where the jobs are,” Bohn said. “There’s a lot unexplained in comparing people with similar education levels and backgrounds.” 

From 2000 to 2018, the percentage of Black workers in public sector jobs declined from 27% to 22%, Thomas said. 

In response to shrinking government job opportunities for Black workers and job loss during the pandemic, the L.A. Black Worker Center created the 1000 Strong coalition of unions and labor groups to push the city and county of Los Angeles to create more pathways to city jobs. 

The Workforce Equity Demonstration program launched in 2022. It’s similar to the city’s Targeted Local Hire and Bridge to Job programs, which recruit, hire and train local workers from disadvantaged and low-income communities.

A friend told Flory about the opportunity to get a city job through the L.A. Black Worker Center. Flory signed up for the center’s workforce development program, Ready 2 Work, which trains participants over five to seven weeks on various skills they may need to find a quality job. 

Participants get training on resume building, financial literacy, leadership, interview preparation and workers’ rights, as well as how to use Microsoft Word and Excel.

Flory said the Ready 2 Work program was “where I was able to find myself again and recognize that I have a lot of strengths and I have a lot of talents I can share with my community.”

The most impactful element of the program, Flory said, was being able to build a community of Black women and non-binary folks to support each other. That element of community, organizers said, is essential for succeeding in often discriminatory or challenging work environments. 

“I feel like in that space, we were able to cultivate a loving community environment where we each felt safe, seen, heard, respected and empowered,” Flory said.  

When the Workforce Equity Demonstration program was created, the L.A. Black Worker Center had provisional offer letters from the city’s sanitation department that guaranteed nearly all of the Ready 2 Work graduates that year had jobs, Thomas said. 

Since then, things have been a lot more challenging, organizers said.

The city has assigned Kevin Gresham as a coordinator to the L.A. Black Worker Center to help navigate the Workforce Equity Demonstration program. 

“Kevin has faced so many obstacles,” Traylor said. “Nobody returned his phone calls. The other departments don’t even respond to him when he requests meetings.”

Sanitation so far has been the most helpful department in Public Works, Traylor said; it has taken most of the 49 workers the city hired through the program. Other departments with hundreds of open positions have not been as cooperative, she said. 

Engineering, for instance, has 218 open positions, sanitation has 786, street lighting has 112, contract administration has 104 and street services has 404 open positions.

City officials did not grant CalMatters interviews with Gresham or anyone in the public works or sanitation departments.

Even when city departments agree to hire workers, the application process is often slow. Applicants in the workforce equity program reported going through multiple interviews and waiting months for background checks. 

Flory said they interviewed with street lighting in August, completed a background check in October and received a provisional start date of Nov. 6.

It wasn’t until January that the department told Flory the job they had been offered was classified as above entry level, and so they didn’t qualify. Flory said Gresham suggested they apply to the open jobs in sanitation.

Flory said they were baffled and had been looking forward to employment stability, after going through other employment difficulties, especially as a Black, trans, non-binary person. 

“So even though I’m qualified, even though I meet all of these things, just because of that one stipulation I no longer had an opportunity to work with the city,” Flory said. “And yes, I was given other opportunities to do manual labor. But when you’re excited to start a career and transition into an office setting, doing manual labor for the city doesn’t cut it.”

Flory has done odd jobs such as helping friends move, to make ends meet. For now, they’re back to working at the Dodger Stadium. 

Traylor said it appears that with her program participants, things seemed to come to a halt when their applications reached the city’s personnel department. 

“We’re not getting a whole lot of reasoning,” Traylor said. “We know that Kevin is working very hard inside the city to get other departments to offer jobs to our participants. But it’s like they don’t really want to engage the program.”

The city did not grant CalMatters an interview with anyone in the personnel department.

Bass had promised to improve hiring practices in November, when the city reported 10,000 vacant positions. 

Since then, Seidl said, more than 3,500 positions were filled after citywide career fairs and hiring programs “helped break down barriers” to city jobs. He added that the mayor’s administration has assigned staff to support training programs to fill public works vacancies. 

Now, the city is facing a nearly $300 million budget deficit and Bass has announced plans to eliminate 2,000 vacant positions.

According to a city memo, the mayor ordered departments to “halt all hiring processes” and implement a “prioritized critical hiring” process. That means only jobs that fulfill a limited list of requirements can be filled.

It’s unclear how the job cuts will affect the workforce equity program, but city officials said public works jobs are a priority.  

The L.A. Black Worker Center officials said they still consider the program a success, with 59% of the Ready 2 Work graduates landing city jobs. The program is continuing to train people who will be eligible for city jobs. 

“We acknowledge that there is always room for improvement, and we are committed to continuously striving for better outcomes for all participants,” said Ashley Clayton, a spokesperson for the center. “We believe that with the continued support and collaboration of the city and other stakeholders, we can enhance the effectiveness of the (Workforce Equity Demonstration) project and further increase placement rates in the future.” 

Black Worker Center organizers planned to meet with Bass soon about ways to make the program work better.

Alejandra Reyes Velarde is a reporter for the California Divide section of Cal Matters.