WASHINGTON — Like many young workers, Alecia Blakely of Columbus found herself struggling to make ends meet and facing dozens of rejections from employers who found her too under-skilled after she was laid off from her job as an assistant manager at a Domino's Pizza.
"I was out looking for jobs and they said I was not qualified," Blakely said. "I was living on my own because I'd move out of my parents' place when I got my last job. It just seemed as if there was no work out there at this time."
After she'd searched eight months for a job, the Georgia Works program connected her with Prosperity American, a collections agency in Columbus. The catch: The job was an extended tryout and her only pay would be her unemployment benefits.
Since then, Blakely has netted a full-time job with the company and has learned quite a bit about the collections industry.
"I've learned a lot about debtors and collectors. I've been a debtor and I've done collections, so I can relate to them and work with them on how things work," Blakely said. "At first I felt kind of rocky about being here because I never had a call center job before. But I had fun doing it and I can say I now have some skills."
As states recover from a two-week congressional standoff over extending unemployment benefits that ended Thursday, labor experts across the country are eyeing Georgia Works, the state's experiment in helping the unemployed find work, with keen interest.
The program functions like an extended audition. It allows potential employees to draw unemployment benefits while receiving workplace training from a potential employer for a maximum of 24 hours per week for up to six weeks. Typically people qualify for up to $600 in training stipends to help defray training-related costs such as child care and transportation. Upon completion of training, participants get credit for acquiring new job skills and are considered for employment.
More than 3,000 people have been hired through the program, and nearly 6,000 Georgia employers have participated, according to the Georgia Department of Labor.
Employers don't have to pay wages, benefits or workers comp, and job seekers keep their benefits while looking for work and learning a new skill.
"It gives a six-week interview and it gives the employee a chance to decide if this is what they want to do," said Fred Landrum, chief executive officer and president of Prosperity America, the collections agency that eventually hired Blakely.
Critics, such as experts at National Employment Law Center, an advocacy group that studies employment issues, say the program is a misuse of unemployment funds and exploits workers' desperation to find jobs in a tough economic climate.
"It's tricky business what they're doing because they are violating wage and hour laws because they are sending folks to employers who are not paying minimum wage. You can call it what you want but the law is clear," said Maurice Emsellem, policy co-director at the National Employment Law Center. "And unemployment benefits can only be provided to unemployed workers, not to workers who are employed by a private-sector employer that is benefitting 100 percent."
In December, the organization sent a letter to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis to express concerns about the Georgia Works program and what it sees as the "apparent lack of compliance with federal labor standards and unemployment insurance law."
In January, the Department of Labor issued guidance to states considering implementing similar subsidized work-based training initiatives for unemployed workers and urged lawmakers to ensure that such programs don't exploit workers.
Supporters hail the program as an innovative approach to addressing unemployment, and Texas as well as other states are copying the model. Earlier this week, during a Senate Finance Committee hearing on using unemployment insurance to help Americans get back to work, Douglas Holmes, president of UWC-Strategic Services on Unemployment and Workers' Compensation, a pro-business group, told the lawmakers that programs such as Georgia Works are the most effective in moving unemployed workers into training that is likely to lead to employment.
"It's about leveraging existing resources," said Michael Thurmond, the Georgia labor commissioner. "We have huge budget deficits in Washington and states are struggling. The only logical strategy is to utilize existing resources."
The Georgia Department of Labor has been working double-time to try and help curb the state's 10.8 percent unemployment rate — an effort that hit some road bumps last week when, for a second time, a Republican senator blocked Congress from considering an unemployment benefits extension.
The National Employment Law Project estimates that about 212,500 people lost benefits each week as Congress stalled on approving money for the aid. The jobless aid money ran out April 5.
While benefits are expected to be restored, and paid retroactively, the deadlock created problems.
In Georgia, just over 5,000 people temporarily went without benefits coverage, and state officials estimated that for every week the Senate stalemate continued 5,000 residents would lose coverage.
The Georgia Works program is about sidestepping the political hurdles that make it tough for people to keep their benefits and find work, Thurmond said.
"This gamesmanship and brinksmanship on two separate occasions is untenable at this point," Thurmond said. "The expectation is that the Federal Reserve, the president, Congress will bail us out and fix everything. Georgia Works is a state strategy that's bubbling up instead of coming down. States are adopting it to address state and local unemployment."
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