‘I felt used and abused’: Pre-apprenticeship participants testify against Delaware nonprofit

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Program participants, Department of Labor, testify before the Senate Labor Committee about Interfaith Community Housing. (WHYY/Zoe Read)

Program participants, Department of Labor, testify before the Senate Labor Committee about Interfaith Community Housing. (WHYY/Zoe Read)

During a Senate Labor Committee meeting, participants in a pre-apprenticeship workforce training program testified they were taken advantage of and mistreated.

The nonprofit Interfaith Community Housing allegedly used ex-offenders for free labor on construction projects through its HomeWorks program, according to a recent News Journal article.

“What I’m hearing is basically a travesty,” said committee member state Sen. Anthony Delcollo, D-Elsmere. “I’m not at all pleased to hear we have public dollars supporting a program that’s deceiving people, and in my view, sounds like a fraud.”

The organization received about $167,000 from the Department of Labor for a pilot program for one year and a $100,000 grant from the Criminal Justice Council to teach participants carpentry skills for which they would receive a certificate.

Participants in the program say they received their training by watching YouTube videos, were sent to work on sites without the protection of hard hats and were left unsupervised for several hours.

“I felt worthless, I felt used and abused, and I felt real bad,” said Eric Mundy. “I wasn’t learning anything, it was like hanging out basically, it was a joke. Anyone that wants to join, they shouldn’t, they’re not going to learn anything from it.”

Kashif Handy said he hopes he and the other trainees will receive back pay after they were compensated for only two days of a five day work week — including on side projects for the trainers.

“I just wanted to bring to light how we were being treated as trainees and how we were being exploited as ex-offenders — that’s how I feel — like they targeted ex-offenders because it’s easy to get them to agree to do something illegal basically, and then get exploited and not get compensated for it,” he said.

Delcollo suggested better auditing of programs that receive funding.

Committee chair state Sen. Robert Marshall, D-Wilmington, said the state must provide and improve training opportunities, and ensure funding is spent appropriately.

“I was the director of the Delaware Skills Center. We lived in an environment of obtaining federal and state training dollars that were performance-based and outcome-based and we needed to earn the money, meaning recruit students, go through the training, get employment, and we needed to document they were on the job six months after completion of training,” he said.

“So, there are ways to monitor and demand accountability, and the legislature has the constitutional mandate to guarantee that oversight of an executive branch department — so we did that today.”

The Department of Labor is conducting an investigation. Secretary Cerron Cade said his department will take proper corrective actions.

“I don’t want to put a time limit on the investigation, I want to give our team enough time for a thorough investigation and couldn’t put a time limit on that currently. Our goal is to try and get this done as soon as possible,” he said during testimony.

Interfaith members were invited to testify at the meeting, but an attorney representing the group told Marshall they won’t speak until after the investigation is complete.

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