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Fresno Chef Gets New Start With High Speed Rail

Katch Environmental recently hired 24 men to work on lead and asbestos removal along the High Speed Rail Corridor

Daniel Ruiz moved with his family from Seattle to Fresno to take care of his parents about a year ago. But found it really hard to find a job.

“I pretty much was on the verge of going homeless.," Ruiz says. "I’m a family man with three children."

He looked up and down the Valley for any descent paying job, but found none.   

Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
Daniel Ruiz

“The job situation wasn’t looking good,”  Ruiz says.  "I started doubting myself. The jobs that were hiring were very part time at very low pay and I was starting to worry. I didn’t know where I was going to go week to week.”

But thanks to one of the first construction jobs in advance of the much disputed initial stretch of California High Speed Rail, Ruiz’s luck turned around.

In early June he was hired as a supervisor on a hazardous waste abatement team through Katch Environmental in Fresno. Their task? The 24 men spend their days clearing out unsafe material like lead and asbestos from sites that will soon meet the wrecking ball.

"I pretty much was on the verge of going homeless." - Daniel Ruiz

At Katch Environmental’s warehouse just north of Yosemite International Airport where Paul Katchadourian’s team gathers the equipment they need for the day – gas masks, brooms, shovels and air purifiers.

It’s not a glorious job, but it’s one of the first visible signs of work on California’s controversial high speed rail project. But for these men, it’s more than a project milestone – it’s a job and a chance for a fresh start.

Credit Katch Environmental
Katch Environmental specializes in industrial hygiene.

Ruiz didn’t have any experience working in construction, but when he heard about this job he jumped at the opportunity.

“I’m a chef by trade, for 20 years. So coming to this environment was an eye opener. I knew it was going to be hard work, but I’m used to hard work. I had no knowledge of lead, asbestos, or anything like that.”

Ruiz’s story isn’t unique. A lot of these men have been without work for months on end, but some of them have a past – felonies and even jail time. And that’s why Katchadourian hired them.

“I want to have the opportunity to lift people up and give them well-paying jobs that are full time and long term.  We’ve been able to interview based on how they approach the job and their willingness to work and learn. It wasn’t on a condition on previous experience.”

Katchadourian and the High Speed Rail team gave Ruiz and the others ample training in lead and asbestos removal as well as in safety and environmental hazards.

“Katch has really gone out of his way to hire these men that probably wouldn’t have been given other chance,” that’s Elizabeth Jonasson a spokeswoman for the state’s future bullet train. “He has prepared them from everything from basic training to managerial level training so they can take this with them for the rest of their lives.”

So what does this mean for high speed rail? Jonasson says that while we aren’t seeing bridges and tracks yet on the future rail line, people are getting jobs. She says that’s important because the Valley has “historic low unemployment, has low educational levels and when there’s companies like this that are willing to step up and invest in our people and give them meaningful employment that’s what it’s all about.”

And it’s this investment and training that Ruiz says has changed his life.  

“I feel like this is my future,” Ruiz says. “I feel like I can actually retire from this project. I’ll make enough money to take care of my family and my mom and dad and maybe be able to give back to the community.”

This work is just the beginning of construction of the rail line and as Jonasson says more opportunities are bound to come for men in a tough spot like Ruiz. 

Ezra David Romero is an award-winning radio reporter and producer. His stories have run on Morning Edition, Morning Edition Saturday, Morning Edition Sunday, All Things Considered, Here & Now, The Salt, Latino USA, KQED, KALW, Harvest Public Radio, etc.
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