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Evacuees finding jobs, hope in Utah

CAMP WILLIAMS — Veronica Scott was working for minimum wage as a cleaning lady before Hurricane Katrina landed her at Camp Williams.

Now, Scott will officially begin her new life in Utah Monday, working in the production warehouse for the Sweet Candy Co. in Salt Lake City. Her new job, which pays $3 more an hour than her former cleaning job, convinced Scott to find an apartment and stay in Utah for good.

"This is my home now. All these good things are just falling into place. It just changed my whole life," Scott said.

Scott was the first of 44 hurricane evacuees to get hired during a job fair hosted by the Department of Workforce Services Thursday. An estimated 85 evacuees signed up for temporary or full-time employment with 22 companies recruiting the evacuees at Camp Williams.

In addition to the 44 who landed jobs, another 19 people have follow-up interviews, and three are expected to be hired today.

George Archuleta, supervisor of the department's employment center, said the 22 employers were just a small representation of the more than 100 companies that wanted to be part of the job fair.

Now that the evacuees are registered with the Department of Workforce Services, Archuleta said evacuees can go into any employment office and continue finding companies that will hire them. At least for now, those companies must provide transportation to and from Camp Williams.

The companies must also be willing to hire a new employee without the usual federal employment eligibility form. A waiver by the federal government is allowing evacuees to work for six months without the paperwork while they are re-issued proper identification, Archuleta said.

"To see that one person hired — to see her face light up like that — it's worth it," he said. "Some realize they're going to stay for the long haul, and that's who we want to reach."

Phillip Johnson II never imagined he would be job hunting in Utah, but he decided to make Salt Lake City his home after arriving this week from New Orleans. Johnson, 23, plans to move into his recently leased apartment at The Gateway and hopes to get a job as a mechanic at Hill Air Force Base.

Before the hurricane, Johnson was being trained as a mechanic while working at Pep Boys.

"Katrina hit me and kind of stopped my process," he said while filling out an application for Hill Thursday. "But opportunities knock. I didn't feel like I was going to get an opportunity like this again, so I jumped on it."

The story is the same for Ferdinand Emery, 57, who spent Thursday looking for a roofing job with several construction companies at the job fair. Emery, who is here without family, worked in the roofing business for 18 years before a rescue plane brought him to Utah.

"It's tense, but I'm not afraid because I'm glad to be here," Emery said. "Never in 100 years I thought I'd end up here, but God works in mysterious ways."

Kimberly Barksdale from Manpower staffing services was surprised by the number of evacuees who plan to stay in Utah and who want to get back to work immediately. Barksdale signed up 10 people for jobs within the first hour of the fair.

Each of those people, she said, would have been offered a job on the spot if the company had a transportation plan in place. Once they figure out how to get the workers to their new companies, she said they can start working immediately.

"There's just a hope," she said, adding that the evacuees represent something of a new start. "They're a lot more optimistic than I expected."

Willie M. Jones is not only hopeful she'll find work soon, she's downright determined. Although Jones doesn't know if she'll stay in Utah permanently, she wants to start making money and making use of her time.

Jones, 58, left the New Orleans Convention Center for Utah with only $15 in her pocket.

"I don't want to sit around. I work all the time, and this is just too much sitting around," she said. "Just give me a job. Show me what you want me to do, and I'll do it."

Jones worked as a nurse's aide in New Orleans but was filling out applications for food services at Thursday's fair. Trying to get a manual labor, hourly wage job was a bit of a shift from her previous employment, she said.

"Right now, title don't matter," she said. " I just want to work."


E-mail: estewart@desnews.com