Chris Cooper and Jessica Johnson in the warehouse near Flint. Both got jobs through special programs launched in response to the city's water crisis. Amy Crawford

Hundreds of locals have been hired to help the city recover from its water crisis.

In an enormous unmarked warehouse on the outskirts of Flint, Michigan, pallets of bottled water extend to the horizon in endless rows, tinted blue by the “Absopure” label shrink-wrapped around each case. This inland sea turns over weekly, trucked out for distribution throughout the city of about 100,000 people, most of whom have relied on publicly funded bottles and filters for more than year.

On a recent afternoon, Jessica Johnson and Chris Cooper stop back at the warehouse to refill their yellow box truck, then head out on a route that winds past the General Motors plant and through neighborhoods of modest prewar bungalows in the city’s northwest corner.

“We’ve done 30 so far, and we have about 30 people to go today,” says Johnson, 28, a Flint native who was hired to drive trucks for the water program last April, a few weeks after being laid off from her $11-an-hour (plus commissions) job as a cell phone sales rep. This job pays $15, and it’s administered through a workforce development agency that also provided training for her commercial driver’s license.

Cooper, 33, came on board in December, hired as part of a separate community outreach program. In addition to delivering water, he makes sure that people’s filters are working and that they know how to use them. He had a previous water-crisis job installing filters, and before that he was a temp in a machine shop, where he made $10.60 an hour before being laid off. Today he brings home an hourly wage of $15.

“I like the pay,” he says, “and it’s good to be able to help our community.”

The story of the water crisis is one that Flint residents know too well. In 2014, officials switched Flint’s intake from Detroit’s municipal system to the polluted Flint River in a bid to save money. However, they neglected to ensure the water was treated with corrosion-control chemicals, which allowed lead and other substances to leach from aging pipes.

Brown and foul-smelling, the water left people with burning eyes and painful rashes, but it was a year and a half before officials took the issue seriously enough to reconnect to Detroit water. By that point the pipes were permanently degraded and many children had catastrophic levels of lead in their blood.

Cooper drops off water at a house. As Flint residents continue to rely on bottled water, grant money has created jobs for water delivery and educating residents about water quality and health. (Amy Crawford)

Michigan’s attorney general has announced criminal charges against more than a dozen public officials allegedly responsible for the disaster. No one can say how much longer water-quality problems will drag on, but in the last few months Flint has had hints of good news: Congress approved $170 million to repair the city’s water system and help defray healthcare costs, in addition to $165 million budgeted by the state for lead-pipe replacement and other measures. Residents are also heartened to know that hundreds of jobs created by the water crisis are now filled by Flint residents. That’s no small thing in a city where unemployment is twice the national average and more than 40 percent live in poverty.

First on Cooper and Johnson’s afternoon list is Corean Thomas, 70, who welcomes the pair—and the two cases of water they bring—into her cozy kitchen with bear hugs. “Residents right here in Flint should get these jobs,” she says, as Cooper checks the filter on her kitchen faucet and Johnson checks her address off on a clipboard.

Next up is Joanne Steiner, 67, who requested 10 cases of bottled water, which Cooper and Johnson pile on her front porch. “It makes me mad that the stupid government had to create this crisis, but at least somebody’s getting paid for it now,” she says, and calls out, “Stay warm, eh!” as they head to the next home.

Last January, when Michigan Governor Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency, he deployed the National Guard to manage distribution of bottled water, water filters, and new faucets, while Red Cross volunteers delivered water to homebound residents like Thomas and Steiner. But within two months, the regional arm of the state’s workforce development agency, Michigan Works!, began taking applications to replace the troops and volunteers with paid Flint residents.

Funded by a National Dislocated Worker Grant from the U.S. Department of Labor, the full-time jobs offer currently unemployed residents $12 to $15 an hour. A separate program organized by Flint Mayor Karen Weaver and Hillary Clinton called Flint WaterWorks used private donations to put 100 Flint young people to work on door-to-door campaigns and mapping 29,000 lead-tainted service lines. That wrapped up last year, but Michigan Works!, which employs both Cooper and Johnson under separate programs, is still going strong with regular job fairs.  

“This is not just a typical workforce development grant—we count on these people to be here every day,” says Bridget Spencer, who manages the state’s response to the water crisis on the ground. It can be physically taxing work, she notes. A case of water weighs more than 25 pounds, and Flint’s winters are brutal.

Spencer, a state corrections officer when she isn’t attached to the Michigan State Police Emergency Management and Homeland Security Division, oversees nearly 150 local hires who run the warehouse, deliver water, staff distribution points in parking lots around the city, and educate residents about filters, testing, and health.

The program has not always run smoothly, she says, noting that it can be difficult to find employees who can pass background checks and drug tests. She also chafes at the fact that her employees, because their jobs are considered “work experience” positions, do not get benefits or overtime. “We work every holiday, and they should get some sort of compensation.”

The state’s workforce development agency paid for Johnson to train to get her commercial driver’s license. (Amy Crawford)

The jobs are funded for a year, but they come with the promise of assistance from career coaches and the assurance that workers will be better-positioned for future employment. Cooper plans to use grants through the local Michigan Works! affiliate and any money he can set aside from his paycheck to take the classes he needs to get certified as a welder. “This isn’t really a career, but it’s good for now,” he says of the delivery job.

Johnson hopes her commercial driver’s license will be an asset when she needs to find work again, but for now she is focusing on the present. “The mission that we’re on right now, I enjoy it,” she says as she and Cooper hoist eight cases of water onto the porch of a small white house before heading back to the warehouse for the day.

Michigan officials announced on January 24 that lead levels in Flint’s water have fallen below federal limits, but they advised residents to keep drinking filtered water until the city’s lead pipes are replaced. Johnson holds out little hope that the crisis will be fully resolved any time soon, and she plans to stay on past a year if allowed.

“I think it’s going to be a while,” she says. “I’m not sure what that means for us, but this program has been very beneficial. It’s hard to find good-paying jobs within the city of Flint.”

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