By Keith Chambers, Chicago Crusader
The line stretched four city blocks. Nearly 1,000 people—many of them in desperate need of work—stood in line for hours to apply for just 400 job openings for the new Mariano’s store opening in Bronzeville Oct. 11.
What seemed like an opportunity to get a job turned into a mob scene with hundreds of disappointed job applicants being turned away or going home after Chicago Police officials closed the gate at Holy Angels Church, where Mariano’s Open House Career Fair was held on Sept. 15. While some were able to have their resumes reviewed by Mariano’s, many left without being interviewed.
One of them was Neal Crudup, 30, who lives in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. Unemployed and broke, Crudup was seeking any job he can get at Mariano’s.
“I’ve made many mistakes in my life, but I came here to get my life together,” said Crudup, who heard about the career fair on the streets. “I’ve made many mistakes, but everyone deserves a chance.”
The experience left hundreds disappointed and angry. Many questioned whether Mariano’s underestimated the turnout or were insufficiently prepared to handle the large crowds. Some also questioned whether Mariano’s was really committed to helping the Black community.
The job fair was held less than two miles from the new Mariano’s store scheduled to open at 39th & King Drive. For the past several months, construction workers and Mariano’s executives have been busy around the clock stocking the store’s shelves and putting the finishing touches on their 38th store in the Chicago area.
In recent months, excitement and anticipation had been building about Mariano’s new store in Bronzeville. Many residents have expressed hope that the store will help rejuvenate the community by providing jobs and spurring economic development in the area. Last month, several minority-owned businesses attended the “Meet the Buyer” expo at Mariano’s hoping to get their products on the shelves at the Bronzeville location.
Weeks before the job fair, Mariano’s sent out a flyer promoting the event. With less than a month before opening, Mariano’s is seeking to fill some 400 positions in 19 departments for the new Bronzeville store. From produce to the bakery, Mariano’s job openings are appealing to applicants seeking work in their community.
With unemployment high in South Side neighborhoods, the news spread like a brush fire. People made extra copies and passed them out to friends and neighbors. Many teenagers spread the word on their Facebook page, and Mariano’s advertised the open positions on its website as did Chicago radio station, WGCI.
The extra publicity drew a surprising number of applicants who overwhelmed the five people interviewing applicants at Holy Angels Church. Many of the applicants were teenagers who came professionally dressed with resumes in hand.
When a Chicago Crusader reporter arrived at the career fair at 4:30 p.m., hundreds of applicants were waiting in a line that stretched from the church at 39th Street to 40th Street & Langley Ave. Many parts of the line were four feet deep.
As hundreds waited in line, tensions were building as many frustrated applicants waited under hot temperatures. Many applicants were closely watching to see if anyone cut the line.
The career fair started at 3 p.m., but many people were waiting since noon. One woman was waiting since 1 p.m. to hold a spot for her teenage daughter who was on her way from school. As it turned out, many at the front of the line did the same thing.
“My daughter needs a job, so I came out today because I knew there would be a lot of people,” said the woman, who did not want to give her name. “I thought that by doing this, she had a better chance of getting the interview.”
The woman’s chances didn’t work. Not only was she told that she couldn’t wait for someone, the heated crowds most likely would have grown angry at the sight of her daughter getting a spot at the front after arriving late for the career fair.
With only two hours left before the career fair ended at 6 p.m., hundreds of applicants were still waiting in line to be interviewed, and then a fight erupted between two teenage girls.
Witnesses who spoke to the Crusader said one of the girls tried to skip in front of other applicants. Soon, the area felt like a mob scene as patience wore thin among the waiting applicants. After the fight, several Chicago Police officers arrived at the scene and closed a gate to the parking lot, cutting off the line of applicants who waited for a long time.
The church’s pastor, the Rev. Andrew C. Smith, was left guarding the gate, where thick crowds were pushing to get in.
“It’s too many people,” Smith said. “We have to think about people’s safety now.”
“This is terrible,” said Kendall Boatner, a Bronzeville resident. “Everything was so peaceful.”
About 25 minutes after police closed the gate, a Crusader reporter surveyed the crowds. The long line was gone; about 90 percent of the applicants who were waiting departed.
Tiffany Covington, chairman of the pastoral counsel at Holy Angels Church, said she was helping Mariano’s secure phone numbers of those who would not be interviewed.
However, the Crusader was unable to verify this with Mariano’s. A public relations representative for the company said the person who could comment for this story was out of town.
This year, Mariano’s has opened at least seven new stores in Chicago and the suburbs. The Bronzeville location will be the first store to operate in one of Chicago’s predominantly Black neighborhoods.
A spokesperson from Mariano’s sent this statement to the Crusader after the story went to press.
“A meet and greet job fair was held for prospective employees of Mariano’s Bronzeville store last Thursday, September 15, 2016 at Holy Angels Church. Due to the overwhelming response, some individuals may not have had the opportunity to meet with the Mariano’s recruiting team or provide us with their contact information. We encourage any individual interested in employment at the Mariano’s Bronzeville store to apply on-line at http://www.marianos.com/careers.”