(MCT) — A program that helps ex-offenders gain work experience cleaning rail cars and buses for the Chicago Transit Authority will end on Dec. 31, according to the Amalgamated Transit Union and the CTA.
The program has been in peril for several years. In 2011, it almost wasn't extended and became a bargaining chip between the union and the transit authority. CTA spokesman Steve Mayberry said union Local 308 president Robert Kelly has pushed to end the program. The CTA pays ex-offenders $9.50 an hour for the job, while union workers are paid between about $13 and $30.
Kelly was not immediately available for comment, and it wasn't clear what led to the program's ending or whether the 65 current participants will be allowed to finish their nine-month apprenticeships.
The job isn't glamorous. Bus and car servicers work overnight shifts cleaning up everything from food scraps and plastic bottles to hypodermic syringes and human waste. But the nine months of work earns ex-offenders job experience and a reference that could lead to permanent employment.
Chicago's Inner City Youth and Adult Foundation President Maurice Perkins led a group of a few dozen protesters outside the union headquarters this morning, calling for the reinstatement of the program.
"Why would they kill a program that's giving ex-offenders and ex-drug addicts a chance to enter the workforce?" Perkins said. "It's vital that we have this. If you've paid your debt to society, you're a new citizen and you should be given a new opportunity."
Michael Vassar, 57, was released in March after 3 1/2 years in prison for a burglary conviction. He said he wants to work and had been on the CTA's Car Servicer Apprentice Program waiting list.
"By them closing that program, it just shuts down one of the few avenues to employment we have," Vassar said.
Mayberry said the program also sometimes leads to permanent positions with the CTA. For example: Brandell Kemp, who did time for a drug crime and was the subject of a Tribune column about the program, completed his apprenticeship in December of 2011 and was hired by the CTA, Mayberry said.
Mayberry said the CTA would be open to renegotiating with the union to keep the program.
The CTA released a statement this morning saying the apprenticeships have "helped hundreds of people turn their lives around."
"The ex-offender program has the benefit of supplementing the cleaning efforts of our regular crews, which helps us elevate service to customers. It's a win-win for everyone, and Mr. Kelly's repeated efforts to reduce or kill the program make no sense for his own workers or for CTA customers," the statement said.
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