Ga. Work Program Grows, Attracts Followers

 
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As states struggle to help legions of jobless workers find employment, some are seeking advice from Georgia, where a growing number of people are landing jobs as a result of free tryouts sponsored by the state unemployment system. The program, dubbed Georgia Works , is so simple that experts say other states should have no problem replicating it.

"It's a brilliant little program. There's no cost to the employer and the only cost to the state is a small stipend for transportation," said Don Peitersen, workforce director for the American Institute for Full Employment , which advises states on employment issues. "I go out and actively recruit states to re-create the Georgia model," he said. Officials from at least 15 states have told Georgia's labor department they are considering the option.

Started in 2003, Georgia Works allows people collecting unemployment benefits to work for selected businesses up to 24 hours a week for eight weeks at no cost to the employers. When not working, unemployment recipients are expected to search for other jobs.

Unemployment benefit checks serve as the workers' salaries and the state pays for workers' compensation insurance when needed. The state also gives job seekers as much as $240 to cover child-care, transportation or clothing costs - a stipend slated to increase to $300 this month.

All employers have to do is certify that they intend to immediately hire for the position and follow up with a performance evaluation, whether they hire the worker or not.

  AVERAGE TIME OF UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS
Source: The American Institute for Full Employment's analysis of U.S. Department of Labor figures

Georgia considers the program valuable on-the-job training, but unlike other training programs, it is not federally funded under the Workforce Investment Act . As a result, Georgia Works is open to all job seekers, not just low-income, disabled or dislocated workers who qualify under federal rules. In addition, there is no need for participating companies to fill out reams of paper to be certified. In Georgia, no legislation was required to launch the unique program.

Critics argue that the unemployment insurance system that funds Georgia Works was not intended to help businesses create jobs, but federal officials say they approve. "It's an innovative program and it's a good one. We think it's a plus all the way around," said the U.S. Department of Labor's southeastern director Pete Fleming.

Under the program, job seekers get a chance to show employers their skills and businesses can test prospective workers before hiring them. So far, more than 3,000 Georgians have landed permanent jobs through the program.

With the recession creating a much larger pool of unemployed workers, Labor Commissioner Michael L. Thurmond aims to quadruple that number over the next year. "Stimulus job creation is not sustainable. Georgia's economy will not rebound unless we jump-start private-sector hiring," Thurmond told Stateline.org.

He said plans are under way to make Georgia Works the state's lead re-employment strategy by aggressively recruiting businesses to get on board and offering job tryout options to every job seeker.

In its six years of operation, Georgia's program has grown primarily through word of mouth, with some job applicants proposing it to prospective employers as a way to get their foot in the door. Successful job seekers have also recommended Georgia Works to unemployed friends, and workforce agencies have proposed it to a small number of businesses and unemployment recipients.

Under the expansion, Thurmond says the state will post signs saying "Ask me about Georgia Works" at all workforce centers, frontline staff will offer the option in initial interviews with job seekers, and a marketing campaign will target some 6,000 small- and medium-sized businesses across a broad spectrum of industries, including retail, hospitality, construction, manufacturing, transportation and public utilities.

In the process, Thurmond says, the program will help struggling companies get back on their feet and start hiring.

As in the rest of the nation, layoffs have subsided in Georgia, but thousands of jobs remain unfilled, in part because employers are uncertain about their economic future. Even as the number of jobless workers soared to nearly 15 million nationwide last month, some 2.6 million jobs remained open, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

By taking some of the risk and expense out of hiring, Thurmond says Georgia can leverage unemployment trust fund dollars to stimulate job growth. Instead of simply serving as income support, benefit checks become a job seeker's investment in new employment and an opportunity for companies to lower the cost of hiring and training. "That's two for the price of one," Thurmond said.

But advocates for workers say the unemployment trust fund was not designed to subsidize jobs. Instead, the insurance is intended to support people while they search for the best possible work. "I don't buy the idea that pushing unemployed workers to fill just any opening is better than searching for a suitable job," said Andrew Stettner, deputy director of the National Employment Law Center , which advocates for workers.

Still, some workers say they would rather get back to work quickly than live with the uncertainty and frustration of a drawn-out job search.

Randall Crenshaw was one of those people. At 41, he lost his job of 22 years last January at hair-products company Goody Products, in Columbus, Ga. After two months of job searching, he said, "I was in shock because I was used to getting up and going to work every morning." So, when his adviser at the employment center suggested he enter the Georgia Works program, Crenshaw jumped at the opportunity.

"There were about 50 of us in the room when he invited us to stay after class if we were interested in hearing more about the program.  Only two or three people took him up on it. So many people got up and walked out. I was just amazed by that," Crenshaw said.

Acknowledging the program is not for everyone, Thurmond says the soon-to-be announced expansion will set a goal of enrolling 10 percent of the state's approximately 200,000 jobless workers. With the program's historic success rate of placing more than 60 percent of participants in permanent positions, the program should result in new jobs for some 12,000 unemployed workers.

Crenshaw got the job he tried out for at a home health-care company in Columbus, and his salary of $35,000 is only $2,500 less than he was making in his last job. He said he'd recommend Georgia Works to anyone.

According to data from the state's department of labor, Georgia Works has helped lower the average amount of time it takes jobless workers to find new employment, reducing the draw on the trust fund by $6 million. After program expenses, including worker's compensation insurance and stipends, the net savings as of March 2009 was $3.7 million.

The U.S. Department of Labor maintains state-by-state data on the average length of time unemployed workers remain on benefits, but allows states to set their own rules limiting the number of weeks each worker can receive a check. While experts consider average duration of benefits a measure of state performance in helping people find work, the availability of jobs is a bigger factor.

Georgia currently requires participants in the Georgia Works program to have at least 14 weeks of state unemployment benefits left. That way, if they land a job during the eight-week trial, it will save the state money on benefits. But Thurmond says he plans to broaden the program to include people closer to the end of their state benefits and those already on federally funded extensions. In addition, the trial period may be shortened to six weeks, since most companies hire applicants they like in the fourth to sixth week, so they won't take a job somewhere else.

Although stanching the drain on the unemployment trust fund is still a goal, Thurmond said he is more concerned about spurring private-sector hiring and reviving the state's economy.

Georgia has been cited by two organizations - UWC Strategic Services on Unemployment & Workers' Compensation and the American Institute for Full Employment - for its innovative approach to helping people on unemployment benefits find work.

"We're in an unprecedented job market so it's a unique opportunity to see if we can make this work," Thurmond said. "Oftentimes in government you have to step back and recalibrate. It's not so much a new idea, but an improvement on a good one. We're flying this airplane while we build it."

The biggest objection Thurmond said he hears from other states and potential business partners is that the program sounds  "too good to be true." It involves scant paper work and a minimal investment.

But simple, low-cost ideas are often the best. "One of the great strengths of the unemployment insurance system is that states provide 50 separate incubators of innovation and change," Fleming of the labor department said.

See Related Stories:

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Govs split over expanding jobless benefits
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Jobless rates up in every state
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States urged to help more jobless workers
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States swamped by spike in jobless rates (1/9/2009)

 
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