Wednesday, September 08, 1999
Job counseling is future of welfare
Employees helped to keep jobs
BY MARK CURNUTTE
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Beyond the celebrated reduction in welfare rolls is the reality that many people can't hold a job without help.
By themselves, they don't have the money, family or community support, work experience, basic life skills or education.
Federal welfare reform that became law in 1996 pushed states to place limits on the amount of time people can receive cash assistance. A clock started ticking in the lives of thousands of people in Hamilton County.
Finding a job in a strong economy is not the problem for many former welfare recipients. The dilemma is keeping it long enough to get a raise, job reference and an economic foothold.
The problem is not solved because people have moved off welfare into minimum-wage jobs.
It is a good thing, but only if we see it as a first step, said Lisa FitzGibbon, president and chief executive of the Work Resource Center (WRC), an agency operating several work retention programs for low-income people.
The next step is to help people stay on the job. Small, everyday problems a $200 car repair, a sick child can be enough to overwhelm low-income people and cause them to miss work.
That's where assistance such as WRC's Employee Success Program comes into play.
It pairs former welfare recipients with employment specialists. They help workers learn to overcome obstacles that otherwise would force them to quit or lose their jobs child care, transportation, lack of life skills.
WRC employment specialists have taken their success partners shopping for professional work clothes, driven parents and their children to the hospital, gone to court with them and settled differences between WRC clients and their job supervisors. They meet with clients and their employers to settle differences and misunderstandings.
And they're available until 8 p.m. because many of the new workers' problems occur after 5. They wear pagers.
The point is to keep people working. Some 150 former welfare recipients who are working at least 30 hours a week are enrolled.
These types of programs are the future of welfare. Human service departments are no longer check processors. They're job counselors.
The explosion in the amount of job retention assistance and the proposed merger of Ohio's human services department and bureau of employment services are indications of the change.
We're moving from supporting people who don't work to supporting people who do work, said Jon Allen, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Human Services.
Employee Success is an example of the shift in priorities. The Hamilton County Department of Human Services program has a $1.4 million, 14-month contract with WRC. The county is using federal money it receives through the state for decreasing welfare rolls. The county, which had 18,000 cash assistance cases in 1996, has 8,500 today.
Before comprehensive job retention programs existed, about 50 percent of former welfare recipients stayed employed for six months, 25 percent for a year.
Since it started in 1996, Employee Success has helped 92 percent keep their jobs for six months, 83 percent for a year.
Meet Michael Pinkston.
He is a 33-year-old single father of three young children two of whom he has custody over. He lives in Findlater Gardens, a public housing community in Winton Hills.
Mr. Pinkston worked third shift in the United Dairy Farmers' Norwood plant from 1989 through 1995. It was then that he learned from county children's services workers that the mother of his two oldest children could no longer care for them.
Mr. Pinkston received custody. But when he couldn't get transferred to a first- or second-shift job at UDF, he resigned. He had been making $12 an hour with benefits.
I had to do what was best for my kids, he said. I couldn't get day care.
The two children who live with him are 9 and 7. A 6-year-old daughter lives with her mother, who is not the mother of his other two children.
Mr. Pinkston worked temporary jobs through private employment agencies to try to lift his family out of poverty. His life was a series of short-term work with hotels and assembly companies, punctuated by months receiving cash assistance for his children.
He hated getting a welfare check. It was the low point in his life.
But I had to do something legal to support my kids, the 1985 Taft High School graduate said.
Earlier this year, Mr. Pinkston found work in a training program operated by the county's human services department.
He was hired July 1 in the Homemakers/Home Health Aides program, which sends workers to the homes of elderly and disabled human service clients to perform basic household chores laundry, dishes, taking out the trash. He rides Metro buses to and from appointments. Toward the end of the six-month program, he will interview for jobs with major local employers.
Mr. Pinkston is paid $7.50 an hour and receives parenting and job skill training. The job also made him eligible to participate in WRC's Employee Success Program.
He met Patricia Cook the second week of July.
He would not be working today if not for her, Mr. Pinkston said.
In two months, she has helped him locate new child care twice, given him bus tokens, driven him to the grocery store, taken his children to doctors' appointments and become a trusted friend. All so Mr. Pinkston can stay on the job.
I'm here to offer encouragement and support, Ms. Cook said. The participants do things themselves.
But she has the connections.
Mr. Pinkston had his phone service cut off, the result of an overdue, unpaid bill. Ms. Cook told him about the Lifeline program, which provides reduced-rate basic phone service to low-income customers.
Ms. Cook knows who's hiring. She carries a stack of employer's business cards bound by a rubber band.
The most important service Ms. Cook has provided Mr. Pinkston is serving as his emergency contact for his children's babysitter.
She'll stay with him for one year. And beyond.
I have people who've graduated after one year, and if I don't hear from them, I call to check on them, Ms. Cook said.
Mr. Pinkston's future is bright. His children are covered by Medicaid, and he receives $59 a month in food stamps. He pays $85 a month rent.
His goal is to untangle his life from the web of public assistance. He wants a career. He's saving to buy a car.
Ms. Cook encouraged him to call UDF and explain why he had to quit and that he'd like to interview for any first- or second-shift openings.
I didn't think I could do that, he said. The plant manager said to call back and set up an interview when I finished the (human services employment) program.
Miss Pat has helped me get my confidence back. She's told me about all the agencies and programs out there that can help me, things I didn't know about. She always tells me to stay positive and that I can do whatever I set my mind to.
I never had nobody tell me that before.
Job retention programs are here to stay.
In Ohio, cash assistance for adults with dependent children is called Ohio Works First, the latest version of the program once known as Aid to Familieswith Dependent Children (AFDC).
It's not "Ohio trains first' or "Ohio educates first,' said John Young, welfare reform executive with Hamilton County human services. It's "Ohio Works First.' The job is the first rung on the ladder. Rung 2 might be education or housing assistance.
We're going to address whatever barriers there are to work for each individual person.
For now, programs like WRC's Employee Success are helping to secure the holds former welfare recipients have on their jobs.
They're learning problem-solving and assertiveness skills. They're encouraging participants to develop neighborhood and peer support systems neighbors trading child-care shifts that middle-income professionals take for granted. They're taken to the public library and introduced to the resources there. They're shown the low-cost activities available to their families through the recreation commission.
The intent is to provide less intensive support as time goes on, said Ms. FitzGibbon, the WRC director. We're trying to change an attitude and help develop a secure attachment to the work force.
So if the economy takes a turn and they are laid off in two years or five years, they see themselves as workers who have the skills to get another job.
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