WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's $447 billion jobs package builds in part on a Georgia job-training program in which people who collect unemployment insurance serve as temporary workers and the companies that employ them temporarily avoid paying wages, benefits or worker's compensation insurance.
Proponents of Georgia Works, which has received lauds from both Democrats and such Republican leaders as House Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, say the voluntary program is a pathway to permanent employment for those who've been on the job hunt for more than six months.
The Obama administration says that a national version of the program would ensure workers receive minimum wage — something that wasn't always the case with the Georgia program — that participation is temporary and limited to the long-term unemployed, and that employers will face rigorous evaluation to ensure workers aren't exploited.
Critics, such as the AFL-CIO and the National Employment Law Project, a New York-based advocacy group, say the program is a misuse of unemployment funds and exploits workers' desperation to find jobs in a tough economic climate.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Labor issued guidance to states considering implementing similar subsidized, work-based training initiatives for unemployed workers. Georgia's program already serves as a model for similar programs in New Hampshire and other states.
Still, the AFL-CIO sent Labor Secretary Hilda Solis a letter last week expressing "serious concerns" about any plans to base a federal plan on the Georgia Works model.
Unions worry that a national version of a program like Georgia Works would result in job seekers — especially minorities — being steered into jobs requiring little skill for little pay and little hope of permanent placement.
"At its core, this is a misuse of the unemployment insurance system, and quite frankly, I'm not sure why employers at large would like their competitors to be able to receive free labor through a program like this," said Judy Conti, federal advocacy coordinator with the National Employment Law Project.
In the seven years since Georgia Works' creation, 25 percent of the more than 23,000 people who completed training have landed jobs with the companies with which they trained. Since its inception, 65 percent of the program's participants have been African American.
Fifty-eight percent of the program's trainees are on someone's payroll within 90 days of participation, state labor officials say.
Georgia Works 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 eight weeks.
Typically people qualify for up to $240 in training stipends to help defray training-related costs such as childcare and transportation. Upon completion of training, participants get credit for acquiring new job skills and are considered for employment.
Georgia Works is not for every job seeker, but for some it's a wonderful opportunity, said Georgia Department of Labor spokesman Sam Hall.
"A lot of the jobs that people had skills for prior to the recession are not going to come back," Hall said. "People had jobs making twice as much as they're making today. They need to get new skills. There are people with masters and Ph.D's who don't have jobs."
However, some labor experts worry that steering high-skilled workers into a program that trains them to work the phones at collections agencies or drive vans for daycare centers is at best unnecessary and at worst disingenuous.
"Give me a break. They couldn't get a job as a janitor otherwise," said Eileen Appelbaum, senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. "It's a good thing they get a job. ...I don't think this is a good program."
The Georgia Department of Labor points to stories like that of Alecia Blakely of Columbus, Ga., and the collections agency for which she works, Prosperity America, as an example of how the program has helped thousands of job seekers and, if nationalized, could help thousands more.
Blakely was laid off during the recession from her job as an assistant manager at a Domino's Pizza. In just over a year, Blakely went from struggling to make ends meet and facing dozens of rejections from employers who found her too under-skilled, to a job as a supervisor at Prosperity America, where she is considered a model employee.
"Somewhere between 70 to 100 people have entered the program (at Prosperity America), and we've hired 70 percent of those," Fred Landrum, chief executive officer and president of Prosperity America, said Friday.
Most of those hires do not have college degrees, and Landrum stresses that in order for the program to work on a national level, the people coming in must be given the same training as any full-time employee.
That's the kind of training Blakely received.
"I feel I've gained a lot from this job," Blakely said Friday. She tells people who question the program to "try it out. It's not going to hurt them to try it. All you have to do is get up Monday through Friday and go to work. If you're a motivated person who wants to work, you'll do it."
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