Opportunity and disillusionment in Pigtown The new local plant looked like a win-win, but losses were heavy

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In southwest Baltimore, PTP Industries' move into a plant on Washington Boulevard was hailed as a victory: an airy new home in the federal empowerment zone for a local company, a tenant for the old Montgomery Ward complex whose sorry condition was a symbol of the decaying neighborhood, and 250 of the new, low-skill jobs that local residents desperately need.

"Our neighborhood has double-digit unemployment," says Arnold Sherman, a Pigtown resident who helped recruit workers for PTP. "I believed PTP was going to be an answer to the unemployed, to some of the prostitution, to many problems."

Eighteen months after PTP opened operations on Washington Boulevard, such optimism has evaporated in the communities of southwest Baltimore.

This discontent exists even though PTP is the second-biggest creator of new jobs in the empowerment zone, having added 300 to date.

Consider Marilyn Edwards, one of scores of Baltimore residents who held jobs at the new plant. Some have quit in disgust at working conditions -- or been fired for absenteeism, for substance abuse or, as Edwards says happened to her, for challenging management.

And while the company continues to employ about 200 empowerment zone residents out of a 550-person work force, the high turnover among local employees has pushed PTP increasingly to fill positions with foreign refugees, thankful for work at any wage.

Many of these are Vietnamese refugees such as Thi Nguyen, imported through Catholic Charities' Montgomery County office to a neighborhood where as many as one in six people is unemployed.

"Baltimore is really a tough city for employers," says Hank Albarelli, a Pigtown developer and businessman.

"It's unfortunate, but there is not a big population to draw from here in terms of people willing and able to work entry-level jobs."

Some community leaders dispute that. But in dozens of interviews, residents, PTP workers and executives agree that the company's rosy job figures disguise a complicated story full of cautions for those who believe business can be harnessed to create social change.

The PTP story illuminates two unpleasant truths:

Despite the federal government's efforts to make the federal empowerment zone a controlled laboratory, other government programs can undercut employment of inner-city residents there.

And despite their strong willingness to work, many inner-city residents are not able to match employers' expectations for even the simple assembly-line work that the packaging firm offers.

PTP's early efforts to hire from the inner city have embittered company executives, too. The firm is now in a legal fight with a union that has sought -- so far unsuccessfully -- to organize its workers.

Facing criticism, PTP officials are saying what many businesses are often too polite to speak out loud: Reliable help is so hard to find in the inner city that tax credits have little effect on their employment decisions.

Says Vice President Jeff Hays: "No employer is going to hire people who aren't performing well, aren't coming to work on time, or are abusing drugs -- just to get a tax credit."

'Needed the work'

Marilyn Edwards lives in West Baltimore, on South Gilmor Street. She says she was collecting unemployment benefits when PTP hired her to a $5-per-hour assembly-line job in fall 1994. That same fall, PTP and an air-freshener maker signed an agreement with the Maryland Economic Development Corp. to occupy the Ward complex until the year 2009.

"I didn't know much about the company, but I knew I needed the work," Edwards says. "They said they desperately needed people, and it was close to home."

Before the company's move, Edwards worked in PTP's cramped plant on Annapolis Road. The company had been looking to combine the operations from that plant and its building on Wells Street. One option was to move to a larger plant in Virginia.

But Maryland made an offer PTP liked. MEDCO bought the Montgomery Ward property for $5 million; the state and city helped back the loans that PTP would need to renovate the facility.

Staying made sense. PTP, founded in the city 14 years ago, was able to remain in southern Baltimore and keep the 250 employees it already had. The packaging firm promised to add 250 new jobs as it expanded operations in a 330,000-square-foot space, with warehouse storage, administrative offices, an airy room where machines mold plastic into various shapes and assembly lines where workers pack flashlights, batteries and computer disks.

"The problem the company had was it was growing so rapidly," says Hays. "This space was perfect for us."

As they prepared for the April 1995 opening, company executives knew that PTP was in the empowerment zone, making the firm eligible for up to $3,000 in tax credits for every zone resident it employed for 90 working days. But attracting local workers to the new $5-per-hour jobs proved difficult.

From their neighbors like Edwards, residents learned that, while PTP requires little heavy lifting, working at the packaging firm is repetitive, and employees must stay on their feet 7 1/2 hours a day.

So PTP officials approached not only the city's Office of Employment Development, which set up a job fair, but also neighborhood leaders in Pigtown, Morrell Park and Carrollton Ridge.

Many of these leaders circulated fliers advertising jobs at the company. PTP hired 103 people from Pigtown as a result of neighborhood efforts, says Sherman.

"They were having constant problems filling spots," adds Albarelli. "So the community tried to help out."

But almost as soon as the new plant opened, the communities began to hear complaints. Edwards and other workers say they understand why. At Annapolis Road, most of the workers had extensive work experience, and supervisors were tough but tolerable. On Washington Boulevard, the scores of new hires seemed less disciplined, and PTP seemed less prepared to deal with them.

Employees recount smelling alcohol on the breath of co-workers, observing numerous absences and late arrivals, and seeing some workers mysteriously disappear after receiving their paychecks. Supervisors picked up on the problems, too, and many overreacted, the workers say.

'Treated like children'

Edwards and dozens of other employees charge that supervisors baited employees, ignored safety precautions and refused to let workers take breaks, even when they were sick or needed to go to the bathroom. "We were treated like children," says Jackie Littlejohn, a current employee.

The pay rankled, and the cost of company benefits for health care -- an average $36 deduction on a pre-tax salary of $200 -- was prohibitive for employees such as Edwards. When she complained about the treatment, Edwards says she was told she should count herself lucky to have a job.

"Granted in the inner city you're going to have some problems and you have to be tough," says Edwards. "But a lot of what I saw in treatment of workers was not justified. Working was very hard, because I just wanted to go to work and not have to deal with all of this craziness."

So she and dozens of workers made a decision: to join a union.

And not any union. The United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America had an aggressive, confrontational reputation that frightened PTP.

In a videotape distributed to PTP workers, union head Robert Kingsley says proudly: "If you fight with UE, you better be prepared to fight to the finish, because we're going to grab on to your leg like a junkyard dog."

A year later, it is hard to sort out the various charges and countercharges. But in retrospect, one of the union's arguments stands out -- that because PTP received state assistance with its move and was eligible for federal tax breaks, it had a responsibility to "create a climate for rehabilitation," in the words of a union organizer.

Kingsley charged that PTP's treatment of employees was part of a "pattern of exploitation in federal empowerment zones."

Public officials -- including 6th District City Councilmen Dr. Norman A. Handy Sr. and Melvin L. Stukes -- echoed that opinion during a rally in front of the plant.

The company counter-argued that PTP was trying to provide discipline to workers and that the union's charges about working conditions were untrue.

"We are strict," says Hays of PTP. "Employees have to produce, and you have to have rules that are fairly enforced for everybody."

On Nov. 2, 1995, employees voted, 226-168, against having a union. In the days before the election, Edwards and a number of other employees lost their jobs (she and at least six others claim the firings were in retaliation for their support of the union). Other workers quit.

And the National Labor Relations Board began investigating PTP, eventually charging that it violated federal labor law 51 times. (The company denies that, and a court battle could take years).

Both sides emerged angry. Says Edwards: "Whether you agree with the company or not, it's a mess. You're on welfare or unemployment, and they tell you to go to work because work is supposed to mean dignity. But what dignity is there in work like that?"

"Imagine, if you can, the reaction of a business owner contemplating a move into the city's empowerment zone," PTP President William Hartley wrote the mayor after the vote. "PTP is an employer who invested millions of dollars in the empowerment zone, only to find itself subject to a slanderous campaign by a renegade union aided by public officials."

Better than Vietnam

Thi Nguyen says he didn't know what to expect from his job at PTP, only that it would be better than Vietnam. He had been an officer in the South Vietnamese navy. After Saigon fell, he spent seven years in jail. His wife raised the children and cared for his passion -- his artwork.

Unaware of the turmoil at PTP, Nguyen, his wife of 30 years and their four children, ages 22 to 27, took jobs on PTP's assembly line on Sept. 26 last year. They had been in the United States 18 days.

"We have come out of hell," he says now. "So we are pleased with anything at all."

If the Nguyens were desperate for work, PTP was desperate for good workers. During the union fight, the company had seen two major customers shift work to other suppliers.

And "a lot of employees decided to leave," says Phyllis Brotman of Image Dynamics, which does public relations for the company.

PTP lost even more workers after launching a new drug-testing program this spring. About a dozen employees quit before being tested. Another three dozen tested positive and were fired, according to union estimates.

Brotman says these and other "problem" workers were those referred from the city's Office of Employment Development. "PTP tried to employ these people, and they have had some successes," she says. "But a large number of workers didn't work out."

In Phu Le, both the company and the Nguyens found a man who could help. Short and unassuming, Le places more than 300 new refugees in jobs each year, all from his Catholic Charities office in Silver Spring.

As president of the Maryland Vietnamese Mutual Association in Wheaton, he has access to an applicant pool of thousands more.

Brotman says PTP has come to rely on Mr. Phu, as he is called, for new workers. "The screening is better," she says. "And the workers are more reliable." Le appreciates the compliment.

"PTP has been a constant customer," he says. "They like having a lot of refugees, especially Asian."

No trouble placing workers

Le says that even in the empowerment zone, he has no trouble placing Vietnamese workers. Refugee job placement is also subsidized by the federal government.

The Matching Grant Program, administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, was established in 1979 to keep refugees off public assistance. Grants are based on a formula involving volunteer time and private donations, but they boil down to this: For every refugee placed in a job, Catholic Charities gets $1,400.

Le says he placed nearly 150 people at PTP last year (many of them older Vietnamese with few English skills), and another 75 this year.

"I've told some of the people at PTP about a place where they could make $6 an hour -- $1 more -- but they like where they are," he says.

Most of PTP's refugee workers live in ethnic enclaves in Washington, D.C., or Montgomery County and commute to Baltimore. A few, including the Nguyens, have moved to Baltimore. And prospered.

A year after they were hired, all six Nguyens still work at PTP and take whatever overtime is offered. With six salaries, they save for the education of the four children and rent a tastefully decorated three-bedroom house in Northeast Baltimore for $640 a month. They are intensely proud of the two new Hondas parked in front.

The Nguyens know little of the controversy surrounding their employer -- nothing of the praise PTP receives for its job gains from state economic development officials, nothing of the criticism the company gets for how it has managed its work force.

"It is important to work and not complain," says Nguyen. "We feel blissful because this company and this country have treated us so well."

And with other Vietnamese at PTP, "we can talk, and the job becomes more interesting," he says. "They are hiring more Vietnamese all the time."

Pub Date: 11/07/96

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