bY Lorraine Connelly
State Representative for the 85th District Mary Mushinsky recently took some time away from her backyard “home office,” where she’s been advocating on behalf of Wallingford residents during the coronavirus crisis, for some porch talk.
Mushinsky, whose 40 years’ experience at the State Capitol has earned her the role of Deputy Speaker, is up for reelection. She has a wealth of experience and a prodigious record of accomplishments. She is admittedly by nature a “problem-solver,” who is intrinsically drawn to fixing things. In this pandemic moment, she’s focusing on those constituents who will need to adapt and reinvent themselves in the wake of coronavirus layoffs and job losses. Not an easy fix.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. labor market has about 15 million fewer jobs than in February, when pandemic-related job losses in the U.S. began to mount. Firms that lay off workers during a crisis, Mushinsky related, often don’t hire them back when businesses recover.
Mushinsky estimates as many as 20% of Connecticut workers cannot go back to their previous occupations in the restaurant, service, and retail sectors. “People are buying everything online; they’re not going into a Macy’s or Sears anymore,” she adds.
According to Mushinsky, “The State of Connecticut, experienced pre-pandemic job growth in manufacturing, retail, professional and scientific services, information, and wholesale trade.” She adds, “The Federal Reserve Bank predicted an almost ideal year for the economy, and our state unemployment rate was only 3.7%. Then the pandemic hit, and we had half a million people in the state apply for unemployment.”
Increased job opportunities is one of the action plans Mushinsky champions and one for which she has a proven record. She has been the chief proponent of apprenticeship programs including Platform to Employment (P2E) and STEP Up for veterans. These programs provide job training for residents, some of whom will need to reconfigure their careers as the state economy recovers.
Platform to Employment began as a pilot in Bridgeport and has since expanded after Mushinsky pushed for statewide funding. The Workplace, Inc., the parent organization, works with employers in diverse industries that receive funding for an eight-week retraining program. Program participants are trained in new skills for existing jobs and have had a 94% job placement rate. Mushinsky has attended the graduation ceremonies of many of her referrals, half of whom have already started their new jobs. She notes, “It just makes my heart sing to see these people who thought they had been discarded by the job market at work again. It’s very exciting because they have been given the opportunity to get their dignity back. They’re happy that they have found a new career with a good income.” The average wage for new hires is $51,500.
Companies that have participated in the retraining program this year include: First Step Child Care & Learning Center and Precision Concrete Cutting in New Haven; Precision Dental Lab in Hartford; Jaguar and Land Rover in North Haven; Lord Chamberlain Nursing and Rehabilitation Center and Frank Roth Manufacturing Company in Stratford; and MDB Construction in Suffield.
If unemployment losses continue, job reinvention and skills training will become the new norm. Mushinsky cites one University of California study detailing how green jobs can provide work for their residents and another by Connecticut’s Legislative Program Review and Investigations Committee that suggests Connecticut is especially well-suited for new jobs in the green economy and technology. She adds, “I’ve been working on retraining people for the new tech jobs in Connecticut. Because the economy is always changing, we will need a skilled workforce to match new jobs on the horizon.”
Welcoming the prospect of green jobs, Mushinsky cautions that “Government and industry – anything that is publicly funded, either by our green bank or one of our utility funds – must ensure that we have a green jobs ladder that provides individuals with increased training as they move up the ranks.” Green jobs will also help reduce the impact of climate change – another subject that she is passionate about.
As she looks back on the arc of her career, Mushinsky notes that she got into politics “sideways.” She was a 28-year-old organizer and lobbyist for the Connecticut Citizen Action Group when she decided to run for public office in 1980. Since then, she has demonstrated effective, unstinting leadership in this “Land of Steady Habits.” The current pandemic calls for radical, creative and novel innovation. Mushinsky, the natural problem solver, is ready to roll up her sleeves to meet these new challenges. She adds, “We will get through this pandemic and our state will be stronger on the other side.”
Lorraine Connelly is a writer and Wallingford resident.