Step Up Targets Latino Small Businesses


By Keith Griffin
The new Connecticut Subsidized Training and Employment Program (Step Up) is proving to be popular among Latino-run businesses and other entities for its abilities to create new jobs at small businesses.
Step Up is an initiative of the state Department of Labor and the state’s five Workforce Investment Boards. Step Up offers two programs: the Wage Subsidy Program and the Small Manufacturer Training Grant Program. Each program offers employer incentives to hire new employees and create jobs.
Resources in the amount of $30 million ($10 million for small businesses, $10 million for small manufacturers and $10 million for veterans) statewide have been allocated specifically for Step Up over the next two years to implement the wage subsidy and training grant.  As of July 11, the program had created 184 new hires under the manufacturer training grant program and 161 under the wage subsidy program.
Ed Rodriguez, president of Penmar Industries in Norwalk, used the training grant program to hire a new machine operator at his manufacturing company that is a minority supplier of labels, tapes and packaging supplies. “There’s not a lot of help for manufacturing companies,” Rodriguez said. His company has 15 employees.
But Step Up was different he explained. “In all honest, it was pretty easy. They went out of their way to make this happen,” Rodriguez said.
The driving force behind the program in Southwestern Connecticut is Carmen Nieves, a Latina who is one of five program managers. She is employed by The WorkPlace Inc. of Bridgeport, which has a contract to run the program for the state.
Nieves demonstrates a strong enthusiasm for both programs while discussing them with “We have a lot of businesses that the grant has allowed them to hire their first employee ever. With the wage subsidy program, I had one woman who hadn’t worked since 1994,” she said. “Small business is big business in Connecticut.”
The subsidized wage program is for unemployed people who lives in a town or city that has an unemployment rate equal to or higher than the state rate as of September 1, 2011 – 8.8% – or resides in a town with a population of 80,000 or more. That would be Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven, Stamford, Waterbury and Norwalk. According to the 2010 Census, Danbury comes up short by 252 residents but does meet other qualification standards.
Veterans must have been a member of the Armed Forces or any reserve component of these armed forces, or a state National Guard; called to active service in support of Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) or military operations against Iraq; and honorably discharged after serving at least 90 days in a combat zone, or earlier if the individual was separated from service due to a service-connected disability.
The Small Manufacturer Training Grant Program gives training grants up to $12,500 for each new employee hired for full-time work. The funds can be used to wages but cannot exceed the employee’s salary. The $12,500 breaks down to up to $2500 the first month, up to $2400 the second month, $2200 the third month, $2000 the fourth month, $1800 the fifth month, and $1600 the six month.
Nieves said there are benefits beyond the Step Up program, which was expanded by legislation passed in the most recent session. “We want them to grow and be successful,” she said. That includes making sure businesses are registered with the state, seeing that they get all possible grants and assistance available to them, and get assistance for employee training.
Nieves would also like to see Latino businessowners refer bilingual job candidates among themselves, especially for those businesses that may not meet the criteria for Step Up.