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City revives a New Deal program to put people back to work

Monday, November 16, 2020 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

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The city of Austin is putting up to $2 million toward a new employment program that helps organizations hire people financially affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Austin Civilian Conservation Corps is modeled after a New Deal program of the same name. The idea is the same as it was after the Great Depression: put people affected by the economic downturn to work in conservation jobs, such as cleaning up parks and trails.

“We’re really excited and hopeful and enthusiastic about helping people get into conservation fields, gain more employment, help make Austin a better, greener place and address the coronavirus pandemic in a way that’s uplifting and forward-looking,” said Daniel Culotta, portfolio manager for the city’s Innovation Office.

Several city departments, including Parks and Recreation, have identified work they need done but don’t have the ability to do themselves. So they’ve teamed up with local organizations that hire people to complete this work, with the city footing the bill for wages. Pay starts at $15 an hour.

About 60 people have been hired so far, Culotta said. They’ve worked with organizations like the Gulf Coast Carpenters and Millwrights Training Trust Fund, doing carpentry and solar panel installation. There are currently two open jobs with American YouthWorks to help maintain parks and green spaces.

City Council members voted in May to ask city staffers to create the program.

“It’s going to make Austin a more beautiful, safer place through projects that reduce wildfire risk, plant trees, improve trails and a whole lot more,” Council Member Alison Alter, whose office worked on the resolution, said in May.

No previous experience is required. The jobs are temporary, lasting anywhere from weeks to months, but Culotta said the focus is on training employees so that when a gig ends, they can apply for other jobs in the same field.

“For all these programs we are really focusing on including trainings and certifications and other advancement opportunities so that while residents are earning income and getting this training, they are getting verifiable credentials … that they can leverage into future jobs,” he said.

The original plan was to use money from the CARES Act, but Culotta said federal eligibility requirements made the program harder to implement. So the city decided to use its own funds, collecting about $1 million from several city departments that had funds available in their existing budgets.

Culotta said the city can authorize another million for the program if it can find the money.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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