NYC summer jobs programs fear they won’t get state money under Albany’s last-minute rule changes

Participants of a summer youth employment program in 2014. (New York City Council Flickr)

New York City had hoped to use state funding to cover 15,000 slots for its youth jobs program this summer. But new guidance from Albany on who’s eligible could prevent the city from using the money, city officials and program providers said. 

Organizations must provide remote work or in-person jobs this summer, according to the “tentative” state guidance released Wednesday. City officials and providers believe they must follow these rules to receive state funding, and that could prove an insurmountable hurdle. New York City had been planning for a different option: career exploration programs, as well as project-based learning, that offers stipends.

After Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in April a cancellation of the Summer Youth Employment Program, public pressure mounted to save the program in some capacity, even if it couldn’t restore last summer’s roughly 75,000 jobs for young people, ages 14 to 25, most from low-income families. City officials said they would find a way to fund a stipend-based, virtual option for youth  — as opposed to placing youth at job sites in person as it has in past years —  in order to maintain social distancing during the pandemic. 

Since then, providers have planned for various scenarios, including virtual models that could offer career exploration and project-based learning for participants, according to program directors. City officials say they’ve been working with providers to craft possible programs that could provide stipends for youth rather than minimum wage jobs offered previously.

But new state guidance sent to New York localities on Wednesday said that no more than 20% of a provider’s youth applicants can participate in career exploration activities, and those spots must be reserved for youth ages 14 and 15 or those who would be “difficult” to place at traditional job sites. The guidance also includes survey questions about programs, one asking how localities plan to follow “proper safety and social distancing” amid the pandemic.

The city is now struggling to find other ways to fund the summer program that has been a vital resource for low-income youth, offering an opportunity to earn money as well as job skills. 

As the City Council and mayor continue to hash out budget negotiations, officials have not revealed how many slots they could possibly fund with city tax dollars and private money, frustrating many advocates and nonprofits that operate the program. For months organizations hoped the city would receive at least $23 million from the state in federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds. Those block grant funds, which typically help buoy part of the jobs program, could have covered 15,000 slots, sources said. 

Some program directors say it could be nearly impossible to pivot and follow the state guidance since it typically takes months to work with job sites and place youth. 

“I think if the state had let us know sooner that this was how it wanted to spend the SYEP TANF grant, maybe we could have made it work,” said Nora Moran, director of policy and advocacy at United Neighborhood Houses, which represents settlement houses that provide summer programs for youth. “But this is coming less than two weeks before this program is supposed to start and so if the state wants this to happen, they should have told us six weeks ago.”

Providers spend several months “cultivating relationships” and finding the right job sites for their youth, said Tatiana Arguello, director of workforce development at Staten Island-based United Activities Unlimited, which last year matched 4,800 young people with jobs across roughly 600 types of businesses and nonprofits. 

Some providers are trying to find creative solutions to help fund some jobs this summer. ExpandED, which designs after-school programs, partnered with teen advocacy group Teens Take Charge and other organizations, to raise private money for summer jobs, but their plan to offer up 40,000 paid internships still depends on millions in support from the city and the state. 

The state’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, which distributes the funds and sent the guidance, did not respond to questions from Chalkbeat about why this guidance was just released and how much funding localities could lose if they don’t follow the rules. 

“Widespread unemployment and the pandemic’s threat to public health have impacted the opportunities for this program,” Freeman Klopott, a spokesperson for the state budget division, said Wednesday. “That said, this administration has always supported summer youth employment, and at this time we are reaching out to localities to gauge opportunities, safety, and the right balance for this program.”

The changes caught the city off guard, said Laura Feyer, a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio, after working with nonprofits on alternative programs. 

“The State has decided to add last minute restrictions on funding for stipend-based options,” Feyer said in a statement. “Their limitations on what will be reimbursed will only serve to harm the children of New York City communities even further, and we are continuing to discuss how we make the program a reality absent their help.”

A small part of the summer jobs program could go on without state funding. Earlier this month the city announced a private partnership that would fund nearly 3,000 youth jobs over the summer. But expanding the program any more could be difficult as the city projects a $9 billion shortfall amid the pandemic’s economic fallout. The mayor has pledged to shift some police department dollars to youth services but hasn’t offered more details.

Since the city canceled the program this spring, providers like Arguello’s have spent weeks dealing with layoffs at their agencies. After laying off 160 workers, Arguello and a small team created virtual programs where up to 2,000 young people can learn about different careers and earn job skills. Arguello, who had not seen the guidance until Chalkbeat sent her a copy, called it “crazy.”

The guidance may be feasible for summer youth jobs programs upstate, which are considerably smaller than New York City’s, in towns that are in a different reopening phase. And city providers may have been able to follow the rules had the state sent its guidance sooner, Arguello said.

“This just seems like they’re adding additional barriers that truly didn’t exist prior to this year in terms of a quota or determining what qualifies as an experience or not,” Arguello said. “It just seems in the opposite direction from where we should be going as a state.”

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