Gotham Gazette

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Job Hunters Get Government Help At One-Stop Centers

New York City is inching closer to having a full-service one-stop job training and placement system available to all city residents. Each borough now has at least one Workforce1 Career Center. Anyone can use them, as long as they have proof of their identity and the right to work in the United States. In practice, most users come to the centers to fulfill the job search requirements to qualify for unemployment insurance after losing their jobs.

After lagging behind other cities, in 2003 New York transferred control of its adult employment services to the Department of Small Business Services, which has made impressive progress. In its first year of managing the career centers, the department increased job placements enormously; in 2004 it served almost 28,000 New Yorkers.

But the group who could benefit most from high-quality job training and placement is not able to use the Workforce1 Career Centers -- welfare recipients. They would swamp the system, which is expected to handle only one-fifth as many users as “HRA Works,” the city’s latest employment services program for people on public assistance. They have too many demands on their time from welfare-related activities for them to use Workforce1 Centers as well.

Welfare Recipients Vs. Everyone Else

Employment services for welfare recipients have improved since the Giuliani years, when they were limited largely to Work Experience Placements, mostly in city agencies. Now adults can enter a variety of programs addressing barriers to work, such as disabilities, domestic violence, skill deficits, substance abuse. and homelessness, although their education and training prospects are still limited. Only 5,000 welfare recipients now attend CUNY, down from 27,000 in 1995, just before welfare reform began. The city’s Employment Services Programs offer basic skills programs and limited job training.

The biggest difference between job services for welfare recipients and those for other New Yorkers is the coercive element in the welfare-related programs. Advocates and program providers agree with the city that clients need to participate actively in programs and demonstrate punctuality, good attendance, and reliability in order to succeed at work. However, according to Community Voices Heard, a welfare advocacy and research group, program providers report being pressured to document “Failure to Comply” for clients who linger too long in their programs without finding work. Many clients are forced to quit programs and restart the job search process after being sanctioned for administrative problems with the welfare bureaucracy.

Clients of the Workforce1 Career Centers attend voluntarily, and have some control over which services they use. They must go through a sequence from basic “core services,” through intensive one-on-one assistance, in order to qualify for substantial education and training benefits. They tend to be better educated than welfare recipients, and have more work experience.

Different Levels of Help for different needs

Each Workforce1 Career Center offers at least half a dozen orientation sessions each week for first time “customers.” The five major centers each have resource rooms, where job hunters can use computer stations, telephones and fax machines. Computer-savvy customers can conduct their own job searches using special databases, printed materials, and internet access in the resource room.

Visitors can register for “core services,” such as resume writing assistance, workshops on job-related skills and short-term basic skills training, preparation for the high-school equivalency diploma exams, and English classes. If they still have not found a job, they can receive one-on-one career counseling, develop an employability plan, and if appropriate, be referred to training. Individual Training Account vouchers can pay for up to $2,500 in short-term tuition costs at approved schools.

Staff at career centers can refer low-income members of “special populations” to services that deal with specific barriers to employment. “Special populations” are defined as:
• workers aged 55 or older
• ex-offenders
• veterans
• homeless people
• people with disabilities
• welfare recipients,
• domestic violence survivors
• people with limited literacy or English skills
• displaced homemakers
• and alcohol or substance abusers currently in treatment programs.

Performance Levels Reflect Client Needs

Community Voices Heard, who surveyed users of the Employment Services Program, reported that only three percent of people referred to program contractors found jobs within six months, and held those jobs for at least six months. In The Revolving Door: Research Findings on NYC’s Employment Services and Placement System (In PDF Format) researcher Sondra Youdelman attributes the low success rate to factors beyond the contractors’ control. Nine out of ten referred clients do not complete the contractors’ programs because they are sanctioned (losing their benefits), never show up to start the program, should not have been referred in the first place, or don’t comply with stringent participation rules. When clients go through a “fair hearing” to regain their benefits, about 90 percent win their cases, suggesting that sanctions are often improperly applied.

The city reports a much rosier picture from its overall “Job Center” reports. Not to be confused with Workforce1 Career Centers, Human Resource Administration Job Centers have replaced “welfare offices” as the place where applicants and recipients deal with welfare agency employees and requirements. In June 2005, the city’s Job Centers reported having found work for over 40,000 clients, about 20 percent of those welfare recipients actually able to work. Three out of four clients placed kept their jobs for at least six months. The discrepancy between the Job Centers’ reports and the finding of Community Voices Heard reflects the screening of welfare clients at Job Centers: only those who couldn’t find jobs after weeks of full-time searching were referred to Employment Services Programs.

The city’s Workforce1 Career Centers, serving unemployment insurance recipients, report placing 64 percent of users who completed services. This may understate their success, because job hunters can use the resource room and attend some classes without registering for individual assistance. “Our policy is not to turn anyone away at the front door,” Maria Buck of the Department of Small Business Services has stated. “They can come in, attend orientation, go to the resource room. But the point is we have to register them. If they are not legally allowed to work in the country, we can’t place them.”

Limitations of the One-Stop approach

One-Stop Career Centers, including the Workforce1 system, are a federal program, based on the idea that job hunters should be able to go to a single place to get everything they need to find work. This could simplify things enormously for customers, if the centers were not also expected to knit together employees from a hodgepodge of public and private agencies, each with their own constituencies, culture, funding streams and performance goals.

In New York City, the State Department of Labor is a partner in every center. The State Department of Education gives classes on site, and the city’s Human Resources Administration signs customers up for food stamps, Medicaid, child care, and other benefits supporting low-wage workers. The city’s Department for the Aging supplies staff who specialize in helping older workers. Each center also hires a private contractor to serve job hunters, a different contractor to cultivate potential employers, and a ‘disability navigator”, who helps customers with disabilities find their way to the appropriate services, and arranges any accommodations needed because of disability.

At a pre-proposal conference for potential operators of the Queens Career Center, the city was asked about the managerial structure of the center. “[W]hatever internal processes that you have in place for your organizations, you can still bring here to this center,” explained Marilyn Buck of the Department of Small Business Services, “but obviously work in conjunction with all the other folks on site. And the same is true for all those other partners.”

Each partner agency keeps a count of how many clients they serve, even when the service is just a referral to another partner or an off-site organization working with a special population. However, they do not have an equal incentive to make sure that other partners count their clients. “[W]e are trying to make sure we have all of the nuts and bolts in place to make sure that information can flow between the Department of Labor [and] us,” Buck replied when asked who takes credit for individual job placements.

Budget Rumblings From Washington

The laws that govern both welfare and the One-Stop Job Centers expired several years ago, and are the subject of Congressional wrangling. There have been attempts to cut funding for both programs. While the welfare caseload has dramatically dropped, much of the money no longer spent on benefit checks now supports low-earning former recipients so that they can survive on skimpy paychecks.

Funding for One-Stop Job Centers has remained roughly constant, but the President and the House of Representatives want to consolidate it into a block grant, a step that often is followed by cuts. Today, funds are dedicated to specific target groups, with formulas that distribute them among regions based on economic and social needs. Combining the funds into a lump sum would shift power to the states, which could dole out the funds on less rational grounds.

Linda Ostreicher, a former budget analyst for the New York City Council, has been in charge of the Social Services topic page since November, 2001. 


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