In early December, two weeks after the state Department of Labor received $610,207 from the federal government to hire unemployed people for storm Sandy cleanup, it trumpeted the news.
More than 900 people asked the state about the temporary jobs, which pay $15.50 an hour, and are limited to people who either never qualified for unemployment benefits, or had exhausted them.
Not one has been put to work.
After five months of publicizing the money to towns around the states, just eight municipalities inquired about the funds, and none applied.
The Courant published a story online Thursday about the lack of progress.
After that story appeared, the state applied for a waiver to hire people to clean up its own parks with the funds. The federal government has granted it.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy told reporters Friday about the waiver application. “I’m not being critical of anyone, cities have got their own job to do, I understand that, but I’m not going to let that money fly around much longer. And if the federal government grants me permission to spend it through the state government later, that’s what I’m going to do.”
The money is enough to put 120 people to work for six months. If towns were to use up the funds, the state could qualify for another $1.2 million in federal funding.
“If they’ve got work that needs to be done based on damage from the storm, this still remains a viable opportunity for dislocated workers,” said Mark Polzella, director of employment services, before the state took action.
Polzella wasn’t sure why towns haven’t applied. The largest cities along the shoreline, New Haven and Bridgeport, did not even ask about the funds.
“I do not have a best guess, to be quite honest with you,” he said. “It’s all dependent on municipalities finalizing what they see as projects, seeing whether they need temporary workers.”
“Identifying the projects can be somewhat arduous for municipalities,” he said.
Harwinton first called about the funds in February. First Selectman Michael Chriss said employees have been spending the last two weeks evaluating damage to trails on public lands. That work will continue for another week.
At that point, the town will ask how to apply, because the town’s six conservation workers can’t clear all the fallen trees and limbs. Chriss said he expects the town will apply for 15 to 20 temps. He said he’s hoping they could be on the job by the end of June.
Stratford is the only town that began preparing a contract, Polzella said, but that town has yet to apply.
“There might be the determination it’s not worth it,” said Brian Cary, conservation director in Stratford. “Just because the money’s there it doesn’t mean it’s worth using.”
He said Stratford’s public works department of 120 people is short staffed, and a crew of five or six temporary workers cleaning up the town’s 19 miles of coastline would mean one of the regular employees would have to watch them.
“We were going to use the temporary laborers to pick up some of the storm debris on the beaches,” he said, “and then minor work related to painting on facilities that were damaged,” such as beach pavilions.
But Cary said the contract he prepared in February to hire five workers full-time for six to eight weeks had not come back from human resources or the chief administrator’s office.
“I’m waiting for them to sign the contract, there may be some issues with hiring temp workers because of our union,” Cary said.
Stephen Nocera, Stratford’s chief administrative officer, did not return repeated calls for comment from the Courant over a period of two weeks. The state set a deadline of April 12 for Stratford to return the contract.
Polzella said most of the towns have been focused on getting money for overtime costs, materials or equipment from the Federal Emergency Management Agency before applying for this funding, but he said it’s not too late for towns to sign up. The money is supposed to be spent by October.
So far, the state told the federal government its own staff’s work publicizing the funds cost $11,694.78, which is covered by the federal funds.
The other towns that called his office about the funds included Orange, Milford, West Haven, East Haven, North Haven and Rocky Hill.
Rocky Hill Town Manager Barbara Gilbert said a staff member called and quickly ruled out applying. “We have nothing to repair and clean up,” she said. “We had minimal, minimal damage.”
FEMA has so far paid $3,997,868.22 to 60 Connecticut municipalities for Sandy expenses, which includes overtime for debris removal, as well as emergency response during and after the storm. The release said FEMA “expects to reimburse the state, local governments and tribal nations more than $52 million in storm-related expenses, which represents the 75 percent federal share of such projects.”
In addition to cleaning up or repairing public land or buildings, the money for temporary workers can be used to do repairs on private houses if the owners meet income restrictions.
“If we begin to put people to work, we can request additional dollars as well as additional time,” Polzella said. “They can do both [using FEMA and a grant to hire temps]. In fact the U.S. Department of Labor and FEMA encourages that level of collaboration.”
Before the state responded to the Courant’s story, Polzella said if no town asked for money to hire temporary workers, the remaining money would be returned to the U.S. Department of Labor.
“I think we would all be very disappointed if that were the outcome,” Polzella said.
Staff writer Jenny Wilson contributed to this report.