Restrictions including mandatory drug testing are limiting participation in programs to find jobs for oystermen.
Workforce Florida, Inc. created in 2000, was conceived to “develop the state’s business climate by designing and implementing strategies that help Floridians enter, remain and advance in the workforce.” In recent months, in response to the failure of seafood harvesting in the bay, the Gulf Coast Workforce Board has stepped up efforts to train Franklin County seafood workers for alternative employment.
Although Workforce Florida is attacking local unemployment on multiple fronts, several hurdles remain to be crossed.
Kim Bodine, executive director of the Gulf Coast Workforce Board, appeared before the county commission on Nov. 20 to update them on the progress of training and placement programs, and to present Workforce’s newest five-year plan. The commission approved the plan, with Commissioner Noah Lockley opposed.
Lockley questioned Bodine about a proposed oyster relay program for which the county has requested federal funding. He asked who made the bylaws for the program and noted that they varied considerably from previous oyster relay and shelling iniatives funded by the state. He asked why drug testing would be required.
Bodine said funding for the relay has been requested through a national emergency grant from the U.S. Department of Labor, and that the rules are based on federal requirements.
“It’s federal money so drug testing is required,” said Commissioner William Massey.
“In the past, the county ran shelling and Workforce wasn’t involved in it,” said Director of Administrative Services Alan Pierce. “Last year, we just subbed it out to the (Franklin County Seafood Workers Association) and they ran the plan. In this case, the seafood workers association is not involved. There’s a leasing agency and they have requirements like drug testing. It isn’t really a change in state law; it’s a change in who’s doing the program.”
Commissioner Cheryl Sanders asked if oystermen would be responsible for providing their own drug tests. Bodine told her they would be tested by the leasing agency.
Pierce outlined three significant changes in the proposed program: Required drug testing. participants receiving a W-2 form from the leasing agency and paid hourly wage as opposed to payment per boatload.
Massey said only two workers will be allowed on a boat. Each will receive $25 per hour for three hours of travel time to and from the bars and five hours of work time on the bar.
Pierce said he believed that in the past, relayers were paid $125 per worker for each boatload of shells delivered.
Bodine told commissioners funding for the shelling program has not yet been approved. She said special approval was received from the labor department’s regional office in Atlanta before the grant request was sent on to Washington.
“We were initially concerned that they would allow us to use these dollars for temporary job creation of this nature,” she said. “They haven’t given us approval yet. Our proposal is still with US Department of Labor. We don’t know what additional requirements they may have.”
Bodine said approval has taken longer than expected and blamed the delay on the impact of Hurricane Sandy. “Because the storm is so close to DC, I feel like people are focused on that,” she said.
Bodine said she is calling Washington and the county’s regional partners regularly and urged commissioners to push for approval as well. “I’ve been told the oysters we are trying to use are dying off,” she said. “Time really is of the essence and that’s what I’m telling them now. They don’t really understand a lot about the industry.”
Commissioner Pinki Jackel suggested letters be sent to Congressman Steve Southerland, Senator Bill Nelson and the state legislative delegation.
“The state has told us they don’t have any money,” Jackel said. “This is our best shot.”
Sanders said the county will contact Leslie Palmer, director of the state’s Division of Aquaculture, and ask if money will soon be available for a shelling program proposed in addition to the oyster relay.
Lockley was critical of Workforce. “You’ve got money to put people to work but the positions aren’t getting filled,” he said.
Bodine told commissioners that other programs are in place to provide employment for displaced oystermen but it has been difficult to get seafood workers to participate.
“People are still trying to harvest what they can from the bay,” she said. “I’m hearing from my case managers people are waiting for the shelling project but shelling is not five days a week. If they are selected for the shelling, I’m sure we can work something out with the county (to allow them to continue training).”
Bodine said Workforce now has 105 seafood workers signed up for training or on-the-job work experience. Another 275 workers who are not saltwater product license holders have also applied for services.
Workforce is currently van pooling 11 trainees to Gulf County four days a week for welding certification. Seven workers have qualified for correctional officer training and three of them have already been hired by a correctional facility. Testing and recruitment of certified nursing assistant trainees is now in progress in conjunction with Gulf Coast State College.
Bodine said 12 work sites in addition to county work sites have been identified for the on-the-job training experience program.
“I’m a little concerned that more people aren’t stepping into those work experience (positions),” she said.
Workforce also recently signed a contract with the county’s literacy program to hire additional tutors and provide a larger facility where people can work on their GEDs which may eventually allow them to seek training for medical or correctional employment.