Georgia Work$ Expands
By Christine Vestal, Staff Writer
When Augusta Roosa lost her accounting job at a restaurant on Jekyll Island, Georgia, she figured it would be just a matter of time before she landed another job in her line of work. But after six months of looking, she decided to go for a long shot.
"I knew the back of the restaurant so I figured 'why not learn the front?' says 29-year-old Roosa. The trick was getting a local restaurant owner to give her a chance to prove she could learn everything she needed to know on the job.
That's where a nationally recognized program called Georgia Work$ came in. Started in 2003, it allows jobless workers to become trainees for selected businesses at no cost to the employers. Starting today (Sept. 20), Georgia is more than doubling the number of people who can benefit from the program by opening it up to anyone without a job, not just those collecting unemployment checks, as originally designed.
Under the program, job seekers can spend 24 hours a week for up to six weeks in on-the-job training and continue to collect unemployment checks. If not receiving unemployment benefits, workers would agree to become unpaid trainees. In both cases, the state would provide each worker up to $600 to help defray job-related expenses such as transportation, child care and clothes.
The brainchild of Georgia labor commissioner Michael Thurmond, the program has helped more than 4,000 Georgians find new careers. It has been cited by two organizations — UWC Strategic Services on Unemployment & Workers' Compensation and the American Institute for Full Employment — for its innovative approach to helping people get back to work. The program has been described in the Congressional Record as a model for other states; New Hampshire and Missouri created carbon copies of the program this year, and other states are considering it.
Thurmond, who is a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, says he decided to expand the program because a majority of jobless workers either don't qualify for unemployment insurance or they have been looking for work so long their benefits have run out. "They are the people who need help most," he says. According to federal data, nearly 60 percent of those who are involuntarily out of work do not qualify for unemployment benefits.
On the campaign trail with Thurman, former President Bill Clinton praised him for "figuring out how to move people from unemployment to job placement at the very time when the country's quickest route to putting people to work is simply to train people for the jobs that are open now." Moody's Analytics chief economist Mark Zandi has also come out in support of Georgia Work$.
When Roosa decided to take advantage of the program, she was receiving unemployment checks and figured she couldn't lose by enrolling. She told Driftwood Bistro owner Dan Dickerson about the program, and he signed up with the local workforce agency, agreeing to give Roosa a rigorous training course to help her qualify for an open general manager's position.
Not having to pay her salary made the decision easy, Dickerson says. Plus, he says he admired her initiative and had a hunch that if she was willing to put in the hard work to learn the business, she could be just the kind of person he was looking for.
Questions about compliance
Despite rave reviews from some quarters, Georgia Work$ has its detractors. In a letter to the U.S. Department of Labor, the National Employment Law Project said the program runs the risk of violating fair labor laws if the businesses fail to provide legitimate training under federal rules. "Training is not just some canned phrase that's up to the employer or the state to decide. It's determined by federal wage and hour laws," says the worker advocacy group's co-director Maurice Emsellem.
Responding to the complaint, the federal government advised state agencies that if employers want to provide on-the-job training without paying minimum wage, the courses must be similar to those provided in vocational schools or academic settings and must not displace regular workers. In addition, employers must make sure trainees understand they are not entitled to wages and are not guaranteed a job upon completion of their training.
At Driftwood Bistro, Dickerson and selected members of his 20-person staff put Roosa through the ropes. "She had to do every job in the kitchen and learn every recipe. Then we ran her through the jobs in the front — hostess, busser, server and bartender," Dickerson says.
Other employers in the Georgia Work$ program say they have put trainees through similarly rigorous regimens. A child care center in Macon hired a state-certified trainer to teach three applicants how to run a classroom, communicate with parents and protect the kids' safety. A spa and wellness center in Madison taught a woman with no previous experience the ins and outs of the business.
Georgia, New Hampshire and Missouri all require businesses to sign an employer training agreement, and state officials say they make site visits and check in with employers and workers by phone during the six-week course.
But not all companies have complied. Georgia has parted ways with at least two employers who did not properly supervise trainees. Likewise, New Hampshire and Missouri's fledgling programs already have cut ties with a couple of businesses that did not fulfill their training requirements.
Georgia Work$ clones
New Hampshire's program, dubbed Return to Work , was launched in April and is identical to Georgia Work$ except that it does not include a stipend. Missouri's program, WorkReadyMissouri , is also identical, but its $300 stipend is lower than Georgia's $600. In all three states, the programs were created administratively, not by legislative action.
The Texas Workforce Commission also offered a Georgia-type program earlier this year as one of several options under a $15 million initiative called Texas Back to Work . But according to commission director Larry Temple, both employers and unemployed workers preferred a work subsidy program that offers businesses a $2,000 bonus for every formerly out-of-work employee retained for at least 120 days.
"We have an economy that's a little more robust so we actually have been able to find folks full-time jobs," Temple says. At 8.2 percent, Texas' unemployment rate is lower than the national average of 9.6 percent.
In Pennsylvania, where the unemployment rate is closer to the national average, lawmakers proposed a Georgia Work$ clone called Keystone Works. But federal regulators who reviewed a draft bill said it failed to comply with unemployment and fair labor laws because it did not explicitly refer to the program as training. Instead, the bill referred to "open employment positions" and employer-provided "skill enhancement."
Word of mouth
In its seven years of operation, Georgia's program has grown primarily through word of mouth, with many job applicants proposing it to prospective employers as a way to get their foot in the door. Successful job seekers have also recommended Georgia Work$ to unemployed friends and workforce agencies have proposed it to businesses and unemployment recipients.
So far, more than 11,000 trainees have registered for Georgia Work$ and about the same number of businesses have signed up. Of the total number of trainees, 38 percent were hired for the job they tried out for during or immediately after the six-week training period. By Georgia's calculation, more than 63 percent of those who participate in the program find work within 90 days, even if it isn't with the employer who trained them.
Roosa landed the job she trained for at the Driftwood Bistro and says she recommends the program to everyone she knows. "This program gives you another chance to do something new with yourself and not pay for a college degree." she says. "The whole country should be doing something like that."