A new effort to help black workers find higher-paying jobs

A year ago, LeDaya Epps of Compton was unemployed and raising three children on her own, struggling to keep her car running to search for jobs.

On Tuesday night, she was sitting in the U.S. Capitol for the State of the Union address, a guest of First Lady Michelle Obama. Through the help of community organizations pushing for greater inclusion of African American workers, Epps has earned a good paycheck for more than six months helping to build the Crenshaw/LAX light-rail line.

Epps’ improving fortunes stem from an approach experts say could alleviate persistently high unemployment in the black community. An agreement involving government, organized labor and community organizations has required contractors to provide more opportunities for disadvantaged workers to get jobs on the rail project.

It’s an effort to create pipelines for black workers into higher-paying industries such as construction. Without such intervention, success often comes down to connections rather than qualifications, saidLola Smallwood Cuevas, director of the Los Angeles Black Worker Center, an affiliate of the UCLA Labor Center.

“It’s a question of the social networks around the work,” said Cuevas, whose organization helped Epps find work. “How do you crack what has historically been a difficult industry for women, and for black workers in particular?”