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July 28, 2021

Job blitz planned as unemployed edge closer to cliff

A large brick building with columns and a large gold dome on top sits behind a gate with steps leading up to it. Photo | Flickr | Ajay Suresh The Massachusetts State House

As lawmakers consider ways to spend billions of dollars to relieve a housing crisis and retrain workers for in-demand jobs, Labor Secretary Rosalin Acosta said Tuesday the administration is preparing to host the largest virtual job fair in state history next month as a buffer against the impending loss of unemployment benefits for 330,000 out-of-work residents.

The enhanced unemployment benefits supported by the federal government during the COVID-19 pandemic are scheduled to expire the week of Sept. 4.

"All we can do is try to get people reattached to the labor force as soon as we can," Acosta said.

Acosta and Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy testified Tuesday at the Legislature's second hearing to explore how the state should spend more than $4.8 billion in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding.

The hearing was hosted by the Joint Committee on Ways and Means and the House Committee on Federal Stimulus and Census Oversight and was led by Rep. Dan Hunt and Sen. Jason Lewis. It was the second of six hearings being planned, with at least four more to be scheduled for after Labor Day.

Gov. Charlie Baker has outlined a proposal to spend a little more than half of the ARPA funding, recommending the investment of roughly $1.8 billion in housing and economic development. The governor's plan includes $1 billion for housing construction and homeownership supports, $450 million for economic development and $240 million for workforce training.

"We are facing the biggest workforce challenge in our lifetimes," Acosta said.

A recent report on the "Future of Work" produced by the administration by McKinsey and Co. estimated that the state would need to retrain and reskill between 300,000 and 400,000 workers over the next decade.

Acosta said that even with the record levels of workforce funding in the fiscal 2022 budget the state will only be able to increase its training capacity from 1,400 unemployed residents to 3,700. Another 16,000 employed workers will enter programs to learn new skills, she said.

"We urgently and dramatically need to scale our training programs," Acosta said, adding, "If we act quickly we can provide hope to those facing an uncertain future."

The Massachusetts unemployment rate in June dipped below 5 percent, settling at 4.9 percent, as more people found work, clawing back jobs lost during the pandemic, and employers continued to try to fill labor needs.

Rep. Paul Donato, a Medford Democrat and assistant vice chairman of Ways and Means, asked what would happen to the more than 300,000 workers who will lose their benefits in September.

"They're falling off the cliff on that day, so what are we doing? Part of that is why I'm here today," Acosta said.

The administration is also emailing benefit recipients to connect them with workforce training and job placement programs, and Acosta said the Baker administration is planning the "biggest virtual job fair we've ever done" from Aug. 16 to Aug. 20, with employers from multiple industries signing up to participate.

While top Democrats are in no rush to commit to Baker's spending plan, many of the governor's priorities were reflected in the requests from advocates in the labor and housing communities: downpayment assistance for first-time homebuyers; housing construction; skills training to fill jobs in health care, manufacturing and other industries.

"We agree directionally with Governor Baker's ARPA plan, particularly the investments in homeownership that are fundamental to building wealth," said Segun Idowu, president and CEO of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts.

Kennealy said the additional $200 million proposed for the production of affordable homes would support the construction of 1,660 new homes, building on the 500 units supported with the existing $60 million allocated to the Commonwealth Builder program.

The administration's plans would also put $300 million into first-time homebuyer assistance programs to begin to close what Kennealy said was the seventh largest racial home ownership gap in the country.

"There are real structural barriers here," Kennealy said.

Sen. John Keenan questioned whether downpayment and mortgage rate assistance would flood an already oversaturated sellers' market with more qualified buyers, driving home prices up further. Kennealy said he understood the concern, but believed homewnership and inventory should be addressed together, not one at a time.

Rep. John Barrett, of North Adams, also questioned how the governor's plan to address housing would extend to communities beyond the 31 cities, including Boston, that participate in the Commonwealth Builder program.

"We're taking a look at that," Kennealy said.

Before the hearing, a coalition of labor and community advocates held a rally outside the State House where they made a case for spending on priorities like housing preservation and retroactive hazard pay for essential workers.

Some of those requests were repeated in testimony given to the committees.

Filanine Deronnette, a vice president with 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, suggested a $400 million grant program for health care providers to provide one-time bonuses to workers of between $1,000 and $3,000.

Lee Matsueda, with Community Labor United, recommended a fully refundable $600 child care tax credit as a state match to the federal Child Care Tax Credit program. He also said money should be used to support free Regional Transit Authority service and reduced MBTA fares for low-income riders.

And Chris Condon, of SEIU Local 509, requested investments in child care and a training fund for private health care workers so that they can improve their medical and English language skills to better serve patients.

"All of this hinges on child care, both making it more affordable while simultaneously making investments in the workforce," Condon said.

Rachel Heller, CEO of the Citizens' Housing and Planning Association, called Baker's proposed $1 billion for housing "an excellent start" and one her organization supports.

Heller, however, called for an additional $700 million to be put into housing preservation, including $450 million for public housing and support for commercial space conversion, housing acquisitions and homeowners repairs.

Marc Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, urged the committee to balance its desire to be deliberate with the need for speed to allow time for housing projects to be planned.

Draisen suggested that legislators consider releasing a bill in September or October that allocates at least some of the funds while they put more thought into how to spend the balance.

Draisen further recommended that the Legislature build on Baker's housing proposal with money for public housing, and consider stipends to make community college and job training programs "a practical economic choice" to the thousands of people who will need to be retrained.

Jim Rooney, president and CEO of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, said the Legislature should use ARPA funds to improve "essential skills" training and eliminate the waiting list for admission into the state's vocational and technical high schools.

He also said participant-level data collection should be required for all workforce development grants to track outcomes for individual workers, including breakdowns by race that would be made available to the public.

Rick Kidder, the co-CEO of One SouthCoast Chamber, echoed Rooney's call for investments in building essential skills, or "soft skills," that are transferable across industries, but are being missed by workers who are not learning them in school or in jobs as teenagers.

"There's nothing soft about showing up, about showing up on time, about being part of a team...," said Kidder.

David Podell, president of Massachusetts Bay Community College, said community colleges are uniquely positioned to absorb some of the workforce training needs. He recommended a $30 million investment in ARPA funds that would allow the campuses to focus on training people for in-demand jobs in health care, information technology, manufacturing and financial services.

"Community colleges would do what they do best, tailor the program to the need of employers in the region," Podell said.

House Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz and Senate Ways and Means Chairman Michael Rodrigues said Monday that additional hearings would be scheduled for after Labor Day to hear ideas on how to spend ARPA money for health care, public health, mental health and human services, economic development, transportation, arts, tourism, climate and infrastructure, education, social equity, safety net programs and families.

Hunt said those hearings would likely take place in September and October.

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