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Shuttle proposal links city workers with jobs


An East Baltimore group wants to shuttle as many as 500 city workers to entry-level jobs in Howard County's booming U.S. 1 industrial corridor, thereby bridging the gap between growing suburban jobs and city workers without transportation.

The proposal by Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition Inc. is welcomed by Howard County employers long vexed by the problem of finding workers for lower-wage jobs in a county with Maryland's highest housing costs.

That problem is aggravated by inadequate public transportation between the city and Howard's industrial corridor.

"The suburbs are where many of the entry-level jobs have gone, but the city is where there is a ready pool of workers willing to accept those low-wage jobs. The bridge between the two is reliable, convenient transportation," said Scot T. Spencer, the coalition's director of fiscal development.

His group hopes to win $2.5 million from a nonprofit group in Philadelphia to be used to purchase vans for shuttling workers between their homes and jobs.

Howard's U.S. 1 industrial corridor is home to thousands of entry-level warehouse, packing and distribution positions, paying an average of $6 to $8 an hour.

This is not enough to support a household in Howard -- where the average cost of a single-family home tops $200,000 -- but it is roughly in line with East Baltimore's average family income of about $20,000. East Baltimore rowhouses sell for about $50,000.

Mr. Spencer said East Baltimore has plenty of good workers who would be willing to take jobs in the U.S. 1 corridor. The coalition estimates that as many as 14,000 people in East Baltimore need jobs, he said.

"People living in the inner city don't mind working, but we believe you have to offer them a living wage and a convenient way to get there," Mr. Spencer said.

One U.S. 1 corridor employer -- Richard Nelson, president of the mid-Atlantic region for office supply giant Corporate Express -- says many area employers could use the city workers.

His company even boosted warehouse wages 30 percent this year in an effort to lure more applicants from the city, he said.

"Transportation has definitely been a factor in our ability to tap that city's labor market, particularly for our evening and night shifts," he said. "We have had real problems filling some of our warehouse and driver jobs because people in the labor pool for those jobs have difficulty getting here."

He would like the coalition's transportation proposal wedded with a job-training program to teach warehouse and distribution skills to potential workers from the city.

East Coast Ice Cream Novelties in Jessup, which produces and packs ice cream, and Smelkinson-Sysco, a huge food distributor at the Maryland Wholesale Food Market complex in Jessup, are among other U.S. 1 employers who say entry-level labor jobs go unfilled at their work sites because of the public transportation gap.

"I've thought about buying my own van to pick these people up and take them to work," said Linda Hastie, a human resources administrator at Ice Cream Novelties.

"It's a real schlep for someone without a car to get out here from the city," said Robert Smelkinson, president of Smelkinson-Sysco. "If they work the day shift, they at least have the bus. But most entry jobs open up on the evening or night shifts. That's where we have the toughest time filling."

The Maryland Transportation Authority operates just one limited-service bus line -- known as the Laurel Flyer -- between Baltimore and the major industrial parks in Elkridge, Jessup and Laurel during the morning and afternoon rush hours.

Also, there's no shuttle bus service from the county's four Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) train stops to the U.S. 1 industrial corridor. Several executives of U.S. 1 companies say the state or county should arrange for such service.

At least 20 companies in the U.S. 1 area operate 24 hours a day, county officials say, offering the opportunity for overtime wages to those with their own transportation.

Joyce Borah is one of those missing out on that income.

Every workday, she makes the long trek by public transportation to her $6.50-an-hour job as a packer for a computer software distributor in the Corridor Industrial Park, just off U.S. 1 near Laurel.

Ms. Borah rises at 5 a.m. each workday to board a 6 a.m. bus near her Randallstown home to a Light Rail stop in Baltimore. She then takes Central Light Rail to the State Center on Preston Street, where she boards the Laurel Flyer for the $2.45 trip to the industrial park so she can report to work by 8 a.m.

She doesn't mind the travel so much, she said. But she does wish she had more transportation options -- such as evening bus runs of the Flyer -- so she could work overtime when it is offered. "If I could work overtime in the evenings," she said, "I could earn good money."

As it stands now, she must be at the industrial park's bus stop by 5:04 p.m. or face the prospect of being stranded. "It's a lousy system really," Ms. Borah said. "It's hard on me."

Another city worker in the U.S. 1 corridor -- Ted Jackson, who works as truck loader in the sprawling food distribution center in Jessup -- agrees better transportation is needed. He's ruled out moving to the county to be closer to his job.

"This is way too expensive a place for a guy on my wage," he said. "Besides, I don't have a car and out here you need a car to get just about everywhere."

For East Baltimore workers, Mr. Spencer's group wants to do something about this sort of dilemma.

The nonprofit coalition was started two years ago by the city and Johns Hopkins Hospital to map out a broad plan for revitalizing East Baltimore. It identified suburban job growth areas around Baltimore -- particularly in Howard -- as full of opportunities.

The coalition is seeking $2.5 million from Public-Private Ventures, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit group that operates an anti-poverty effort called "Bridges to Work."

That group will decide on the Baltimore proposal in June, said Beth Zelnick-Palubinsky, co-director of Bridges to Work. It is reviewing seven proposals nationwide, she said, but considers Baltimore's a strong contender.

If selected for funding, the project would be launched April 1 with an assessment of the transportation needs of inner-city residents.

The coalition's proposal ultimately involves selecting 1,000 East Baltimore residents for placement in full-time jobs. Half would be placed in jobs in the city.

The coalition would purchase about 15 vans over 18 months to transport workers from their homes or neighborhoods to suburban work sites. The service would require subsides of about $150 per van daily, Mr. Spencer said, even with riders paying $20 weekly. Employers would have to offer full-time jobs with wages of at least $6 an hour and health benefits, he said.

The proposal is roughly similar to some other subsidized van services around the nation, which link low-income or unemployed inner-city residents with suburban jobs.

Among the most well-known is Suburban Job-Link Inc. in Chicago. That nonprofit group contracts with employers in a large industrial area outside the city to supply part-time and entry-level workers and provides workers with door-to-door van service, said Bernadette Ryan, Suburban Job-Link's marketing director.

"Transportation isn't the only barrier to employment for the unskilled inner-city worker, but it is the No. 1 barrier," Ms. Ryan said. "We've found you open up a vast world of opportunity if you overcome that barrier."

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