City To Willets Point Workers: ‘Get On The Bus’
By Joseph Orovic
Looking at the scars lining his arms, Arturo Olaya thinks, “Not again.”
He worked at an Ihop in Boston, cooking breakfast all day. The pots and pans singed burns into his skin.
Two decades later, Olaya owns an auto-upholstery shop and is president of the Committee To Save Willets Point. He gladly left the kitchen behind, but fears Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s latest step in remaking the Iron Triangle may force him to cook again.
Nearly a month has passed since Bloomberg announced The Willets Point Workforce Assistance Plan which, with The New York Hotel and Motel Trades Council and LaGuardia Community College, hopes to make the auto technicians of today the service industry and construction workers of tomorrow.
The Economic Development Corporation has provided LaGuardia with a three year grant worth $2.5 million to fund English-language classes, vocational assessments and job placement assistance for every worker of the Iron Triangle at no charge.
Yet the grease and dust-covered auto technicians remain wary of a career change.
“I can paint your car right now for little money,” one auto painter said, who asked to be anonymous. “Now the City wants me to wash dishes and fill glasses of water at a restaurant.”
Most workers requested anonymity, fearing they may drive away future employers.
Shortly after the City announced the plan, LaGuardia sent its CUNY On Wheels bus to Willets Point in an outreach effort and to assess the workers’ needs. It was met with a group of protestors, led by Olaya.
“There was some miscommunication between workers and what our purpose was,” Jose Orango, LaGuardia’s Executive Director of Government Relations and Communications said.
The bus itself is equipped to assess and inform, with computer stations and college staff available to explain the program. Ultimately, it’ll also be used to teach.
The actual curriculum has not been set, Orango said. The program will begin to take shape and address the overall and nuanced needs of the workers as assessments continue. But for now, he hopes to change perceptions and increase enrollment.
“[The workers] who got on the bus were pleasantly surprised,” said Orango. “We need to make sure they know this program is available to all of them, regardless of what is finally going to happen there.”
While admittedly skeptical, some workers expressed relief that they weren’t totally forgotten.
“The City didn’t say anything about us for so long,” a muffler technician said. “At least now they say, ‘These people need to get taken care of.’ But I’d rather stay here as a mechanic.”
Given the fledgling nature of the program, it has yet to establish a clear stance towards the business owners, who stand to lose as much if not more than their employees. Orango says their concerns will be addressed, and members of LaGuardia’s Small Business Development Center will be on the CUNY On Wheels bus for its next visit to Willets Point. (The bus is currently in Ohio, getting souped-up to handle the Iron Triangle’s rough terrain).
Meanwhile, Olaya has a different proposal.
“You already have skilled auto technicians. Why send us to learn new jobs? Why not send us to a school like Apex [Technical School] to upgrade us?”
And the scars, which were supposed to remind Olaya where he has been, now show where he may be headed.
“Forget it. I think my wife would drive me out of the home,” he said. “And I was a phenomenal cook too.”