Invisible Recovery

| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

Joe Gill wasn't any luck finding other work in the Seattle
area after Alcoa closed its Auburn plant in January 2009 and his plant-manager
position vaporized. So when he heard about an April job fair in Richland for
opportunities at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, he got up at 3 a.m., drove
east and stood in line for eight hours to talk to recruiters. Employers in the
Tri-Cities received nearly $2 billion in funding through the American Recovery
and Reinvestment Act of 2009, better known as the federal stimulus bill.

Today, Gill works for a subcontractor of CH2M Hill, overseeing a building
destruction-and-demolition crew at Hanford. As last year wound down, he was
busy moving his wife and three grade-school-age sons to the Tri-Cities. He says
he enjoyed the hazardous-waste training and feels good about his work
protecting the public from toxic waste. He's also hoping that after the
stimulus funds run out in 2011, more federal money will come along to keep him
employed.

"There was no opportunity to replace a job with my experience or
pay level in Seattle," he says. "Here, the training is spectacular and
hopefully, they'll get more funding."

Gill may not know it, but he is a lucky
man-one of relatively few unemployed people who found a new, full-time, ongoing
job courtesy of the stimulus money coming into Washington. 

Our state was a big stimulus winner,
with state agencies and other Washington-based institutions receiving more than
$5.5 billion all told (that's $828 per capita). As of the end of October, we'd
created or preserved more than 34,500 jobs, ranking our state third in the
nation.

So why aren't there more stories like Gill's? A closer examination of
the figures reveals the stimulus funding to be less of a jobs bonanza than it
initially appears. The vast majority of what's been tallied as stimulus-related
work in our state was for existing positions that were retained-in most cases,
for just a few months.

Many of those jobs might not have been preserved and our
state would have been deeper in debt had Washington not received the stimulus
money. Or state services would have shrunk more. For people who kept their
jobs, that's the good news. But it's little comfort to the unemployed. Despite
much White House rhetoric about employment figures, much of our state's
stimulus funding didn't create work at all-it just kept vital services going.

Teasing out the true impacts of the stimulus funding
requires wading into a dense thicket of state, federal and local data. We've
penetrated the numbers fog to find where the biggest lumps of stimulus money
went, and what kinds of jobs the money brought.

StimulusSchools and Prisons: $634 million

About two-thirds of our state's entire stimulus job-creation
tally came in the form of teacher positions preserved, rather than new hires.
And then, those jobs were preserved for just three months. Our State Office of
Financial Management got $452 million in stimulus funding, and much of it was
used to plug a state budget hole in second-quarter 2009. For April, May and
June of last year, 24,242 public school teachers' salaries were paid with
stimulus money, explains Jill Satran, economic recovery coordinator to Gov.
Chris Gregoire. The funds simply helped keep the state's budget hole from
growing. At the end of the quarter, the state resumed paying teachers'
salaries.

Another $182 million in recovery money to the state could be
spent at the governor's discretion-and it went to retain nearly 3,000
corrections officers working in state prisons. Otherwise, Satran says, their
jobs could have fallen under the ax, because the money would have had to come
out of the state budget.

Hanford $1.9 billion

Hanford-related projects got three of the largest stimulus
contracts in the nation. Contractors CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Co.,
Washington Closure Hanford LLC and Washington River Protection Solutions in all
received more than $1.9 billion in funds aimed at accelerating Hanford cleanup
efforts. It's a cost-effective use of federal dollars because removing
plutonium and other toxic materials from the Hanford site sooner prevents
groundwater contamination and saves money in the long run, says Geoff Tyree, spokesman
for the U.S. Department of Energy's Richland office. 

Due to the hazardous conditions, most Hanford jobs pay
well-annual salaries range from $30,000 to more than $100,000. Field workers
can earn up to $35 an hour. The contractors' fall 2009 tally of jobs saved or
created was 2,513.

But it's an open question whether most of the Hanford work
bought with stimulus funding is really new. Tyree says the arrival of the
stimulus funds had the immediate effect of saving close to 300 jobs where
funding was ending, for instance.

Some observers estimate the number of net new jobs at
Hanford is fairly small. State economist for the Tri-Cities area Dean Schau
says, "Employment is clearly up, but in terms of hundreds, not thousands. If
there are 2,500 new jobs, I'm not seeing them. It's a deficit in one side of
federal funding replaced by federal funding from another side."

Transportation: $835 million

The State Department of Transportation says it's creating or
retaining 2,283 jobs for its money. Many are in King County, which got $25
million for transportation vehicle maintenance from the state, preserving 190
positions of the state total. Another $35.8 million transportation contract
bought King County 60 new 40-foot, hybrid diesel-electric buses and funded their
maintenance for a year.

In all, King County took in $79.6 million for transportation
projects, by far the county's biggest funding category out of the $97.5 million
the county received in all stimulus funding.

The big win here: With the construction industry severely
depressed, bids came in low. DOT spokeswoman Melanie Coon reports that with 33
state stimulus-funded construction projects bid out so far, bids have come in
an average of 29 percent below project estimates. Coon says the savings will be
used to fund seven additional transportation projects.

The UW: $189.7 million

University of Washington research facilities were big
stimulus winners, scoring more than 400 separate grant awards. This number puts
the UW second only to the University of Michigan in stimulus awards from the
National Institutes of Health, the UW's biggest grantor.

The UW counts only 72 jobs created, and 738 retained from
its funding as of January. Workers here tend to be well paid, though, in the
high five figures and beyond.

One of those who landed new work is Bryan Paeper, a former
contract employee for Merck who was looking for "something more stable," with
benefits. He's now a research coordinator at the UW's Northwest Genomic Center,
managing a gene sequencing group. The Center took in more than $25 million, and
Paeper got a challenging position with a team that'll be trying to identify
single-gene mutations implicated in diseases where the cause is currently
unknown.

"It's going to be an exciting couple of years," he predicts.

The Safety Net: $956 million

Nearly $1 billion in stimulus funding went to the state to
plug social-service budget holes. This funding wasn't as much a job creator as
it was a service provider-most of the money went out the door in June in the
form of food package distribution to nearly 15,000 individuals in the state's
Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Program. An additional 40,000 other poor
households were given $20 to $30 a month in cash aid.

Some of the social service funding trickles down to local nonprofit
agencies, which are creating jobs to serve the Puget Sound region's swollen
population of unemployed. It's a smattering of work here and there, but each
job translates to a lot more services for needy people in the region.

At Wellspring Family Services (formerly Family Services of
King County), spokeswoman Patricia Gray says the $896,690 it received will be
spread over two years to fund five new case workers in housing services. These
positions pay between $37,000 and $44,000 a year. Case managers will work with
300 families that are either homeless or facing eviction. Part of the resources
will also be available for up to three months of rental assistance.

City of Seattle: $72 million

In Seattle, too, stimulus funding has so far been mostly a
job saver. Jen Chan, the city of Seattle's federal stimulus coordinator, says
the tally is only about 10 new positions through September 2009, because most
of the actual money hasn't been spent yet. The biggest chunks of funding: a $20
million project with carmaker Nissan to create plug-in stations around the city
ahead of the release of new plug-in electric cars in the fall of 2010, and $15
million for widening the Spokane Street viaduct.

So there you have it. But whatever happens, in about 18
months, it'll all end. Most of the stimulus funding must be spent or forfeited
by fall 2011.

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