A Jobs Program For Rebuilding After Sandy

At a press conference this week in Red Hook, Brooklyn, New York State State Labor Commissioner Peter Rivera and other state officials announced a $27.7 million program providing up to 5,000 jobs to assist in Hurricane Sandy recovery and rebuilding. The $15/hour jobs will target currently unemployed individuals and will last up to six months. Pay will be capped at $12,000 per employee. Participants will cleanup and repair damaged public property across 13 Sandy-affected counties. Funds for the program are being provided by federal disaster relief.

The creation of 5,000 short term Sandy jobs is welcome news for everyone involved. But it also sets an important, longer-term precedent for a possible federal jobs program to rebuild and reinvigorate local economies as well as to rethink and reshape the post-Sandy future.  

The extent of recovery and rebuilding needed after the hurricane is enormous. One of the effects of the storm is a continuing call for cooperation and compassion as communities cross socioeconomic divides to come together and ensure everyone's collective future. There is also a call for a larger vision and more coordinated, urgent efforts to address climate change and mitigate the effects of future weather disasters.

As I wrote recently in Newsday, Sandy has revealed much about our vulnerabilities, and about our need for skilled workers across the employment spectrum -- from blue collar jobs in green energy and green construction to white collar positions in science and technology. We need all hands on deck as we seek and build solutions to everything from decreasing our reliance on fossil fuels to mitigating the risks of rising sea levels to living a more sustainable existence.

Sandy makes our need to do things better and smarter starkly apparent. A few weeks ago Bill Keller of the New York Times called for a new Manhattan Project to protect our coastal cities. The atomic association may turn some people off, but the focused, high-level coordination of training, technical and intellectual effort is a fair model for what is now needed. We have to keep up the rallying cry if we are to emerge from this better and smarter.

Imagine the jobs program has just been launched in New York State writ large. Imagine a federal jobs program that would not only to put millions of Americans back to work, but pursue the larger solutions we need going forward.

My colleague David Callahan pointed out early after Sandy hit that our government response to natural disasters should set an example for how we should respond economic disasters:

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, you won't hear public officials -- even conservatives like Chris Christie -- saying that devastated towns should pull themselves up by their bootstraps. No one thinks that government should walk away with the recovery job only half done. Likewise, we should never walk away from the victims of man-made economic disasters when they are still suffering acutely. Yet that is what existing public policy is doing right now. That's worth pondering as billions of dollars in emergency aid is sent to the Northeast.

Sandy provides an undeniable reason, an unprecedented opportunity, and a compelling motivation to put our absolute best and brightest ideas, and all of our resources, to service as we rebuild better than before. Looking to American labor, and supporting it through incentives and formal, large-scale programs to train and employ our talent, is an important part of this process.