States Coach Welfare Recipients In How To Keep Their Jobs
By Clare Nolan, Senior Writer; Sarah Andrews, Special to Stateline
When Tresa Breshears, a 29-year-old single mother from Auburn, Wash. found herswelf unemployed this spring, she unexpectedly received a letter from the state offering help in finding a new job.
While raising her sons, Nick, 11, and Derek, 6, Breshears relied on welfare for eight years, from 1988 to1996. She left the welfare rolls for work in 1996, returning only briefly in 1998 when she was out of work.
Now she was in danger of going back on welfare again, or so the state thought when her name appeared on its unemployment insurance rolls. Under a pilot program begun in February, Washington reaches out to former welfare recipients who apply for unemployment insurance to see if it can help them move quickly back to work.
Breshears became one of nearly 200 former welfare recipients to participate in Re-Employ Washington Workers (RWW). Through a 30-hour workshop and other services, the 8-week program helps low-income parents find "a job, a better job, and a better life."
"It was excellent," Breshears said about RWW, "a good uplift after being suddenly terminated. And my employer would be very much in agreement. He's gotten a good worker. He tells me that all the time."
She said the job she found after going through the program, working as assistant to the owner and manager of RC Trucking, is "absolutely the best job" she's ever had. Although she still struggles with the costs of rent and raising a family, Breshears says she finally found a job that makes her feel comfortable, rather than afraid of being fired. "It's turning into a career," she said.
"I can put myself in the company and become part of it, not just an employee, not just a number," she said. "I get a guaranteed raise at the end of 90 days, and there is opportunity for advancement."
In RWW, Breshears attended a weeklong workshop, where she practiced her interviewing skills and improved her resume. She also received a $50 clothing allowance and help with child care and transportation.
"I had fresh interview skills and fresh clothes. I looked good, and I felt good, and those were key contributors to them wanting me," Breshears said.
Her favorite part of the 20-member class, which was all-female, was the "Choices" computer program, which asks the user questions and, based on her answers, determines her level of skill.
"It made us realize how many skills we had and gave us phrases to use in our resumes and for interviews. Before I would have said I opened mail.' Now I know that I worked with mail distribution.'"
Breshears found work within two weeks of completing the class and RWW is still helping her pay for car repairs so she'll continue to have daily transportation.
The program, which will be expanded this month to 16 sites from the original six, continues assisting participants for up to a year with expenses like work clothes, based on need.
It is still too new to provide definitive data about RWW's success. But Program Director Kathy Carpenter estimates that about 50 percent of the almost 200 initial volunteer participants found work during the eight-week job search.
RWW is the latest Washington initiative to reach out to former welfare recipients. Last August, the state began a similar, but far more massive effort to contact tens of thousands of people who have left the state's welfare rolls for work.
Under the Washington program, or W-Plex (for Post-Labor Exchange), callers work the phones evenings and Saturdays, contacting former recipients and quizzing them about their jobs or lack of work, child care arrangements and career goals.Callers refer those who are interested to training programs at community colleges, job placement and other services and to advisors who field questions about tax credits for the working poor.
According to Glynnis Ashley of the Washington Employment Security Department, W-Plex callers have contacted 20,000 people in the past year, given 6,200 referrals to community college, referred 3,900 to better jobs and sent tax information to another 4,900.
Other States Follow Washington's Lead
Washington's job retention programs are among the nation's broadest and most well established. Many other states say they are just rolling out new programs now. All appear to be proceeding with caution. Designing effective programs to help keep welfare recipients in jobs and move on to better ones is a less than exact science. States had little to build on; employment programs under the old welfare system generally met with only limited success.
"We were thinking about what our wage progression strategies were going to be and we looked for models and couldn't find any... The traditional service model wouldn't work," said Ashley of the Washington Employment Security Department.
Working is difficult for most welfare recipients; all of them are parents with children under 18. Generally, they are also low skilled and poorly educated. Many have skeletal work histories. Historically, many of them have moved from job to job like Tresa Breshears, cycling within the lowest economic level, and, often, returning to welfare.
The New Training
Because of the need for fresh ideas and the nature of the new welfare rules, which allow states to run their programs independently, approaches vary widely from state to state. No one program is exactly like any other, although some general trends are emerging. Most states are starting small. The number of people states are reaching with each new program is tiny compared to the number who have left the rolls over the past three years. Many states, however, are developing several programs at once.
Most states, like Washington, are not creating jobs, but are trying to train recipients for jobs that already exist. Several states are allowing what they consider their most hard-to-serve recipients those with drug and alcohol problems, learning disabilities and histories of mental illness to work at state-supported jobs, but usually for only six to nine months.
Some states say they specifically have resisted direct job subsidies, although Hawaii is one state that does provide such assistance.
Job-specific Training: Minnesota and Michigan
Several states are working to link community colleges with businesses to educate and train recipients for specific job openings.
Minnesota's new Pathways program, launched in 1997, is an example of this. State businesses in need of workers team up with a community college to design a training program. Pathways awards funding to the partnerships, with the businesses agreeing to match the state contribution. Preference goes to partnerships that promise jobs paying better than minimum wage and offering opportunities for advancement.
So far, Pathways has awarded grants to 15 programs, which should help about 2500 welfare recipients prepare for new jobs. Of the more than 50 business to sign on so far, half are healthcare providers.
- Michigan also runs job-specific training programs out of some of its community colleges. The program began at Oakland Community College in 1995. It offers customized curriculums designed for EDS Corporation and Kelly Services. Recently, Xerox also joined the program. Last year, the program expanded to Macomb County and Detroit and will soon open in Flint.
- Wisconsin offers grants to workers, who then choose their own program. Applicants need not have recently been on welfare to qualify. Anyone whose earnings fall below 165 percent of the federal poverty level, has kept the same job for nine months, works 40 hours a week and has $500 of his own can receive a $500 state grant to apply toward post-secondary education.
Utah, Rhode Island, Vermont and Virginia are providing intense supervision to welfare recipients who leave the rolls for work.
Utah is now rolling out two new initiatives. Under E-1, its support program for employers, the state pays companies $300 a month for up to six months to supervise former welfare recipients. The state also trains the folks who will be doing the supervising.
- In a Rhode Island program begun in 1997, six specialized managers work intensely with employers and welfare recipients to fill job openings and help the new workers move ahead. Each specialist is assigned to a particular region of the state.
- Using federal funds, Vermont initiated a program last February to reward employers who hire welfare recipients in one of the most economically deprived areas of the state. In a pilot program in northeast Vermont, a temporary employment agency will work to place workers with participating employers. If the company hires the worker permanently, the state will pay the business a $2000 bonus.
- Virginia requires a minimum six-month job follow-up period of intensive job coaching and case management with mandatory contacts, face-to-face and by telephone for all recipients who go to work.
Iowa, Kentucky and Delaware have developed mentoring programs. Iowa and Kentucky recruit volunteers to advise welfare recipients on career strategies. Delaware's plans call for participants in the VISTA program, Volunteers in Service to America, to provide individual and group counseling.