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Georgia Jobs Program, Lauded By Obama, Has Critics

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President Obama is scheduled next week to announce a new federal jobs plan that could include some kind of worker training program. A Georgia program is among those the president is considering, but it's gotten mixed reviews.

At a recent town hall meeting in Illinois, Obama answered questions about the sagging economy, and mentioned Georgia Works, a job-training program that allows a company to try out a prospective employee for eight weeks while the worker still receives an unemployment check. He called it a smart program.

"If they hire you full time, then the unemployment insurance is used to subsidize you getting trained and getting a job," Obama said.

The program began in 2003. Under the latest version, the state pays a $240 stipend to participants. The goal is that trainees will get a full-time position by the end of the training period.

Becoming An 'Asset' To Employers

Jacque Willis Walker, who handles calls at Georgia State University's Educational Opportunity Center, says 15 employees at the center, including herself, have been hired through Georgia Works.

"I was able to glean information and learn things I hadn't learned before, to enhance me as an individual so that I am an asset wherever I go," she says.

Willis Walker was a forensic toxicologist who was laid off. With Georgia's unemployment rate above the national average, she says, she couldn't find a job. After the training, she got a temporary position, which led to a full-time job at the university.

"It's been a success. I will say in my department alone there are four other people who came through the Georgia Works program," Willis Walker says.

Last fall, the program was expanded to allow not only those getting unemployment benefits, but also the long-term unemployed to try it. At the time, Georgia Works paid a $600 stipend, but so many people signed up that the budget was wiped out in months.

"No one could have anticipated the response that we got," says Sam Hall, a spokesman for the Georgia Labor Department.

Hall says the state had to reduce the program after paying out $5 million in just four months — as much as it had paid out in the previous seven years.

"At this point, the enrollment has dropped significantly, and we're in the process of evaluating how Georgia Works will be administered in the future," he says.

Georgia officials say the program has had a 24 percent success rate since 2003; nearly 5,600 people have become employed by the end of their training. They say the program helps employers, who see reduced training costs, and also benefits employees, who gain new skills.

'Legal Objections'

Critics say it exploits people who are doing real work but not getting paid.

"The activities that the workers are engaged in are basically employment, which means they should be entitled to the minimum wage and should not be working off their unemployment insurance benefits," says George Wentworth, a senior staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project.

The group asked the U.S. Labor Department to take a look at the program, alleging that Georgia Works is basically an unpaid job audition that may violate federal labor laws. Wentworth is concerned about efforts to expand the program nationally.

"What we don't know is whether or not a federal proposal to model the Georgia Works program would deal with some of those legal objections," he says.

More than 30 states have expressed interest in Georgia's program, and New Hampshire began one about a year ago, without a stipend. Officials say they've had a 60 percent success rate there, with 147 employees hired. That's such a small number that it's unclear how successful the New Hampshire program would be nationally.

Discovering Hope

There are only about 20 people currently training in Georgia Works, including Rhonda Davis, who lost her job in June.

"It's filled me with some hope because I was to the point I was like, 'I'm never going to find a job. It's going to take forever,' " she says.

Davis was a human resources executive making about $85,000 a year when her company downsized. Now she's in training for a job that pays less than half of that.

"I have a mortgage. I have things that I need to pay. ... I know I won't be receiving the salary that I was making, and I'm OK with that," she says.

Georgia officials say they're looking at how to sustain the program in the long term. With 10 percent unemployment in the state, labor economists aren't sure whether it's the plan the White House should back, but they say it's clear the administration needs to do something to create jobs.

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