Brooklyn to Obama: How about a federal jobs program?

BROOKLYN -- Margot Walker has a simple request for President Obama when he addresses Congress tonight to outline a jobs plan: "Raise the minimum wage to $9 an hour," said Walker, 49. "Food is sky high; rent is sky high."

After eight months of trying, Walker just got a job as a food service worker for Greyhound at the Port Authority bus terminal. It's part time and pays $8.35 an hour, but unlike her last job as a seasonal employee in the city park system, it's permanent.

"I'm happy, because I know I can move up," she said. "And it's something to add to my résumé."

During a busy afternoon in downtown Brooklyn, while parents and children shopped for school clothes along Fulton Mall, plenty of people knew plenty of other people who are out of work. After all, the unemployment rate in Brooklyn is 9.7%, according to the state Department of Labor, higher than the 8.8% rate for New York City as a whole.

They were lukewarm about President Obama's ability or willingness to take steps to improve jobs — for one thing, the Republicans "keep putting sticks in his wheels," said Leonid Simonovskiy, who was waiting with Walker outside a job-training center. And perhaps not surprisingly in New York, where city civil service jobs have been a traditional route to the middle class, they felt the government should simply hire people.

More jobs should offer benefits, said Simonovskiy. "I'm 45 years old, and I have to go to CVS to buy glasses without a prescription because I don't have a doctor." A former driver for a medical transportation company, he wants to become an X-ray technician so he can get a job with health insurance, he said.

"I want him to keep in mind what this means in terms of families," said Jacqueline Biscombe, who was escorting her two granddaughters, Carmen and Rita, to buy school supplies. "How disruptive not having a job is on a family."

"I want federal spending for job creation," said Sara Feinberg, a 30-year-old public defender. "What was that called, the New Deal? I want a Newer Deal."

Too many public defenders' clients are in trouble because while they once were security guards or construction workers, they are now unemployed and "desperate," said Feinberg's colleague Sydney Peck, 33. And whether guilty or not, those who have jobs lose them if they have to skip work for a court date. Because so many are unemployed, "There's a thousand people waiting to take your job," Feinberg said. "The consequences of getting arrested are really amplified."

Vicky Stewart, 79, a retired grade-school teacher, said Obama's spending priorities are all wrong. "Giving money to the big corporations, to the banks — they don't make jobs," she said. "Give something to the small businessman, the grandmama and grandpapa stores."

Stewart's grandson, Christopher, 21, joined the Army because he could not find a job to pay for college, she said. "And there's a thousand guys like him." Stewart went to college at the age of 35, after raising her children. "At that time, you could do it. There was money for education."

Like Stewart, Adeel Cheema, 22, is working his way through college with a job selling perfume and cellphones. He works 40 hours a week to help pay his $3,000 per-semester tuition at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. His job prospects when he gets out? "God knows," he said. "Seventy-five percent of my friends are out of jobs right now. They send applications everywhere; they fill them out online, and go to stores. … A girl I know graduated with my exact same degree, and she couldn't find any job. She's working as a teller in a bank."

Obama's plan may include an extension of the payroll tax holiday, which cut by 2 percentage points the amount workers contribute to Social Security. For a worker who makes $50,000 annually, that cut saves $20 in a weekly paycheck. Cheema, who gets paid $8 an hour, said that wouldn't help him much. "That's lunch for two days."