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Thousands employed locally through federal jobs program could be out of work by week's end

September 27, 2010 |  6:52 pm

Tens of thousands could be suddenly jobless Friday if the U.S. Senate does not extend a federal program that pays businesses, community groups and local governments to employ low-income people, officials said Monday.

In Los Angeles County, 6,000 to 7,000 could be unemployed by the end of the week, said Philip Browning, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services. One of them is Danny Mariscal,of Los Angeles, an eager 19-year-old in his first job stuffing day-bed cushions into covers and inspecting finished furniture at Modernica Furniture, a factory in downtown Los Angeles near the L.A. River.

“I’ve been eager to find out. Hopefully, I do,” said Mariscal. He said his family was proud of him for getting his first job.

Mariscal said he spent half a year looking for a job, and it was hard to find entry-level work. “You had to have experience. Here, they were willing to show me,” Mariscal said.

Jobs like Mariscal’s are funded by $1 billion in federal money contained in the $787-billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 championed by President Obama. But the funds for the subsidized employment program will expire Thursday, at the end of the fiscal year, unless the U.S. Senate acts to extend the program.

Federal officials arrived at Mariscal’s workplace Monday to tour the facility and drum up support for extending the program, which has stalled in the Senate amid concerns about the rising deficit. The Obama administration is seeking a one-year extension of the program.

David Hansell, acting assistant secretary of the Administration for Children and Families, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said that since the federal jobs program went into effect in July 2009, about 250,000 jobs have been created in 38 states, with 35,000 of them in California.

“This program has succeeded beyond our wildest expectations,” Hansell said. He said three objectives have been achieved: employing low-income people who otherwise would have been on welfare, supplying small businesses with more help and keeping local economies humming.

“It would be a tragedy if we had to end this program after the end of the week,” Hansell said.

Anyone being laid off this week would face a tough job market, with California’s unemployment rate at 12.4%, well above the national rate of 9.6%.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe, a Republican, urged the Senate to act.

“Policymakers in Washington have told me that this program has been the most effective use of the stimulus dollars they have seen,” Knabe said in a statement. “Business owners have told me that, without this program, they wouldn’t have been able to stay open. People who have gotten jobs have told me that earning a paycheck and taking care of their family has been much better than collecting a welfare check. In fact, many adults employed through this program have transitioned to permanent, unsubsidized jobs.

“To me that is proof alone that this program is a success. We just need Congress to take action and extend this program,” Knabe said.

Frank Novak, one of the owners of Modernica, known for selling its tables to Pinkberry, said the federally funded jobs have enabled him to increase furniture production –- a big help because the company is typically cautious about hiring.

 “It’s a win-win. We needed the help and they needed the jobs,” said Nohemi Castro, human relations director at Modernica.

Already, the program has helped one worker, Tikowa Rhodes, a human resources employee and receptionist, land a permanent job at Modernica.

Rhodes, 31, said she lost her previous job as a preschool coordinator in September after being injured in a car accident. She said it was difficult finding ways to make ends meet as she cares for her 6-year-old son. Rhodes said she was overjoyed when she landed her new job in April and was exhilarated when she become a permanent employee Friday.

“Now, I can continue to pay my bills. It was a feeling of independence,” Rhodes said.

But Modernica can’t afford to hire all eight of the workers subsidized by the federal program and may have to lay off several by the end of the week if federal money doesn’t continue flowing.

Among the workers is Jeff Amaya, 31, who has been working at Modernica for six months, trained to assemble beds.

“It opened up a whole new avenue for me,” said Amaya, who had been out of work for two years and is raising a 5-year-old son. He said the job has taught him new lessons in life: “Here, it has to be the best it can,” he said, and he has learned to make “sure  when you do something, you do it right, instead of doing it fast.”

“This saved me. It’s been a real lifesaver,” Amaya said.

Standing next to him was Gerardo Diaz, 39, who before having a job at Modernica struggled to make ends meet through self-employment. He is raising three children: a 7-year-old son and two daughters, ages 2 and 3.

“This is a great opportunity to sharpen my skills,” Diaz said.

-- Rong-Gong Lin II in downtown Los Angeles

Photo: Carpenter George Colmenares works at the Modernica furniture factory in Los Angeles on Sept. 27, 2010. Credit: Genaro Molina /Los Angeles Times