New Program Will Bring 400 Jobs to Sonoma County Residents

January 04, 2010 | The Press Democrat |  Link to article

Hundreds of low-income Sonoma County residents will get jobs this year with the federal government paying their wages through September.

Who is eligible? People legally able to work in the United States, who receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and have minor children.

People who are not on TANF but who have minor children are also eligible if their income is less than 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines ($22,050 for a family of four.)

HOW TO APPLY: Starting Monday, call SonomaWORKS at 565-5500.

The subsidized employment program is funded by the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which passed in February and was meant to right a staggering national economy.

The nine-month program is expected to place about 400 people - many of them welfare recipients - in prevailing wage jobs at non-profit organizations, public agencies and private companies.

"It's targeting people who are unemployed right now,"said Karen Fies, employment and training division director at the county human services department.

Four hundred people is a small portion of the roughly 26,400 county residents who are unemployed, and the overall impact to the county's $21 billion economy will at most be minor, economists say.

And some potential job candidates said it sounds too good to be true.

"I'm very skeptical," said Jessica McCabe, 32, of Santa Rosa. "There's always a catch."

A single mother of four boys, she said she lost her administrative assistant's job and apartment in November and has been living at Catholic Charities' Family Support Center in Santa Rosa ever since.

But Fies said that other than the eligibility requirements (which McCabe appears to meet) the program is what it seems.

"It's going to be a massive project that we're really excited about," she said. "It will be a lot of work and a lot of good work will be done."

Said McCabe: "I'm going to make a call and see what happens."

The county's human resources department is administering the $5.4 million program, which officially starts Monday. It awarded Goodwill Industries the $600,000 contract to run the program's day-to-day operations, including matching people to jobs. The remaining $4.7 million be spent on wages and payroll taxes, Fies said.

County workers will refer eligible job-seekers to Goodwill, which will place them in jobs matching their skills and experience. The program will in most cases pay 100 percent of an employee's wages and payroll taxes.

For Santana MacInnes, a volunteer stint she sought out while unemployed put her in a position to be among the first to get a job through the program.

"It's the best Christmas present ever," said MacInnes, 33, of Santa Rosa. A single mother of a 2-year-old boy, she applied for public assistance for the first time in May, four months into a fruitless job search that started after she lost her job as a waitress.

She said she expects to be hired at the Small Business Development Center at Santa Rosa Junior College - where she has been volunteering to gain office experience - as an administrative assistant making about $20 an hour.

"It's a windfall for me," said Lorraine DuVernay, director of the center, who plans to hire MacInnes to take on the duties of a staffer on maternity leave.

"We couldn't function without someone in that position," said DuVernay, who said she would have had trouble finding the money to fill it.

The stimulus funds for the program ($5 billion nationwide) went first to the state's social services department, which passed them on to the counties.

"The stimulus is about creating jobs and this is the purest way of doing that, by actually subsidizing wages," said Fies.

She said that about 50 percent of the job placements will be at nonprofit services agencies. Thirty percent will be at public agencies such as the Small Business Development Center, and about 20 percent will be private-sector jobs.

For workers, the program will not only bring in a paycheck but "create that energy that is only created by working," said Laurie Petta, vice president of workforce development at Goodwill Industries. It will also provide an extended training in both "hard" and "soft" workplace skills - from typing to punctuality, she said.

Experts say that, done right, such programs can have many long-term benefits.

"These programs have been quite successful in helping people build a track record so they have recent employment and contacts in the labor market," said Evelyn Ganzglass, director of workforce development at the Center for Law and Social Policy, a Washington nonprofit group that advocates for low income people.

Important components of successful programs include the degree to which they direct people toward fields where there will be jobs in the future, Ganzglass said. Other key elements are a solid web of training and support to help people attain appropriate skills as well as deal with work-related issues such as child care.

"You have to think of it as a transition from subsidized employment to unsubsidized employment," she said, "but it needs to be structured as such, so it's not just slapping people into any job."

Such programs can greatly boost a person's lifetime job prospects, she said, "but it really depends on how well it is done."

Petta said that county case managers will help workers with issues such as child care and transportation on a case-by-case basis. Goodwill also will provide workshops, online courses and support services to help people succeed, she said.

Stimulus act spending is to end at by September 30. Beyond that, in economic terms, the long-term return on the government's investment in such programs is unclear, said Robert Eyler, director of the Center for Regional Economics at Sonoma State University.

Stimulus act spending is funded by borrowing now in hopes that enough tax revenue will be generated by future economic growth to pay off the debt, Eyler said.

"Certainly you are getting a temporary bump (through the subsidized employment program), the key is whether you are going to get a permanent bump," he said.

"There are two simple bets being made: that the jobs will be retained or it makes the people more employable when the money runs out, and the labor market has recovered enough to provide other employment opportunities," he said.

For MacInnes, such concerns are secondary to the benefits of a paying job.

"It's still kind of a shaky situation but I'm getting paid well ... so it's good for now," she said. "But I'm definitely going to keep my feelers out; I'm not going to sit on my butt."

Even the skeptical McCabe said temporary openings often lead to bigger things.

"In that nine months there's always the opportunity," she said. "It's all on who you are and where you place yourself."


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