October 12, 1997 in Nation/World

Welfare Parents Learn How To Earn Program Teaches Basic Skills For Landing A Job

By The Spokesman-Review
 

The window shades are drawn to cut distractions. Posters leap off the office walls with enthusiasm: “Work!” “Success!” “Independence!”

“What do we want?” asks the coach.

“Jobs,” the welfare recipients mumble.

“Again! What do we want?” demands the man with a storm-gray beard and military boots.

“Jobs!” they yell. Someone hits the table with a fist, jiggling coffee cups.

The 12 welfare mothers and fathers huddled in the north Spokane office want to work.

They want to excise the shame and poverty of public assistance. They want to escape bill collectors and their parents’ homes. They want to take their kids on their first vacations.

Larry Domingo, their state-employed coach and cheerleader, wants to show them how.

They left the welfare office Friday loaded with can-do attitudes, interviewing tips, crisp resumes, cover letters and a fistful of job leads.

“I’ll say it again: There are more jobs out there than you can shake a stick at, more jobs than you can ever find,” Domingo said. “You can take any job and make something good out of it.”

Dropouts are a problem

But after days of exclamation points, the two-week class ends with a question mark.

Six people dropped out - one after just an hour.

Of the six who stayed, only one had landed a job.

Since the classes started in August, a quarter of the welfare recipients invited to class showed. Half landed jobs.

For Domingo’s class, it’s a difficult task. Their paths to independent lives are strewn with obstacles: from medical problems and absent mates to felony convictions and moth-eaten self-esteem.

“My self-confidence is shot,” said Cheryl Rowland, 32, who has been on welfare for 12 years, raising her daughter alone. “I look at a waitress and say: ‘I could never do that job. I’d be terrified.”’ Those attending the class are volunteers - willing test subjects as the state prepares to switch on its profoundly changed welfare system.

Most of the 97,000 recipients statewide will take the job-search class after Nov. 1, when attendance and aggressive job hunting - contacting 15 employers a week - are required to keep receiving welfare checks.

Federal money in the balance

Huge purses of federal money rest on the success of the new program, called WorkFirst. Failure to meet the federal government’s demand to reduce the rolls could cost the state up to $20 million a year.

State welfare officials have responded with a hard-line program.

Public assistance is temporary, they say. With few exceptions, the poor must work.

To grease the transition from welfare to work, state lawmakers expanded child care and transportation subsidies, and changed rules to boost the income of the working poor, allowing them to continue receiving welfare grants while they collect paychecks.

“The philosophy of moving people out of dependence is a matter of emancipation, of self-determination,” said Bernie Nelson, regional administrator for the Department of Social and Health Services in northeast Washington.

“It’s so bedrock in this capitalistic culture. The whole movement here is an attempt to develop the work ethic.”

With 10 pages of help-wanted ads in the Sunday Spokesman-Review and the lowest state unemployment rate in 20 years, officials are optimistic that many will leap off welfare.

The job-search classes are supposed to be the springboard.

Domingo, 49, leads his class with direct sincerity. A Vietnam War veteran, he wears Army boots to remind himself: “I’m a soldier in the war on poverty.”

The curriculum is designed to place low-skill workers into entry-level jobs. Domingo’s students received detailed pointers on landing a job, including appropriate job interview responses, office behavior and dress.

Among the practical tips: Don’t come to a job interview with kids. Wait for the potential employer to extend his hand first. Avoid drinking the night before. Eat a breath mint before the interview.

The men and women listened intently. Some hadn’t held a job since the Reagan administration.

They hope to get jobs as waitresses, day laborers and grocery clerks.

“I never even touched a typewriter in my life,” said Angela Langdahl, a 30-year-old mother of two. “This gave me information I’ve never been told before.”

The course curriculum asks students to analyze any hidden skills, an ego-boosting exercise that leaves them feeling like diamonds in the rough.

One handout, titled “Not Just a Housewife,” lists the skills needed to run a household. Officials estimate 80 percent of people taking the classes will be women, since they constitute the vast majority of adults on welfare.

Boosts self-esteem

Chris Mietus, a management consultant hired by the Spokane Area Chamber of Commerce to analyze the classes, said the course was effective in boosting self-esteem.

“It gives them the potential to sit up taller, instead of slouching at the kitchen table.”

But the class - and WorkFirst as a whole - has been criticized for thrusting welfare recipients into the job market without improving their chances of climbing into technical or manufacturing jobs.

Mietus said he couldn’t hire any of those who were in the class he attended last month for his consulting business, Haupt Management, although he referred one woman fluent in Spanish to another consulting business.

Critics say the get-to-work push simplifies reasons for welfare dependency.

“This is a good idea for a subset of welfare recipients, the 15-30 percent who just need some assistance in locating jobs,” said Bradley Scharf, a Seattle University political science professor.

But the majority are being ignored by WorkFirst, he said. Without vocational training and education, they’ll remain stuck.

A battery of studies shows a high school education alone leads to jobs with almost no hope of a livable wage.

And those who do find work will flood the job market for entry-level jobs, keeping wages low, Scharf said. They’ll quickly learn that “$7.50 an hour isn’t going to cut it. They’re going to realize they are worse off than they were before,” he said.

Mike Masten, chief administrator of WorkFirst, says rules still are being written for training classes. The state was recently handed $22 million by Congress to develop jobs and classes in areas with high poverty.

“Our focus is getting people to work,” he said.

Time crunch for working mothers

But Jean Coleman, a Seattle-based advocate for welfare recipients, wonders when a working-poor mother will have time to learn a marketable skill between a 40-hour work week and caring for her child.

“Everyone is yelling at her to spend time with her kids, help them do their homework, and to work,” Coleman said. “We can’t expect her to be Superwoman.”

Welfare recipient Langdahl, a mother of two, is willing to work anywhere. She once pulled the graveyard shift at a gas station in Tacoma’s “gang-banger land.” Anything is a step up from that, she said.

But when a family crisis struck last week - an unexpected visit from her husband’s daughter - Langdahl skipped class to run errands. Her family is one of the reasons she quit a job at the West Central 7-Eleven and got on welfare.

“Family comes first,” she said. She has rescheduled for a later class.

The state doesn’t track the number of people who quit the course. Domingo heard disconnected tones when he called the welfare recipients who dropped his class.

Last day of class

As the class met for the last time Friday, its members traded laughs and phone numbers during a cake-and-balloons ceremony. Most lack a high school diploma, making this is their first graduation since middle school.

A produce warehouse hired Josephine Vilapando, a 37-year-old single mother of five, on Friday. She was excited, running to a neighbor’s house to call a reporter.

Nicole Henifin, a teen mother, has a line on a manufacturing job paying $7.22 an hour. The class is impressed by the wage. Few others have found jobs leads above $6.

Donna Nelson also is optimistic. She has nearly persuaded a property management company to hire her for a job in Billings, Mont., calling daily to demand, “Hire me.”

She shelved the jeans she wore the first day of class for a professional-looking suit. The outfit covers the names of her two teenage children - Jennifer and Michael - tattooed on her forearm.

Rowland’s attitude has also been transformed. She gave up smoking without help and keeps her ‘78 Malibu purring. She can find work.

“This gave me more confidence to go and shake hands with the people that hold my future in their hands,” said Rowland, on her way out the door.

She was headed to a job interview.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

MEMO: These sidebars appeared with the story:

MORE THAN JUST A JOB

A list titled “15 Good Things About a Bad Job” was distributed at a recent class teaching Spokane welfare recipients how to land jobs. It lists the following reasons for why any job is a good job:

1. You get an insider’s view of your industry.

2. You have a chance to meet new people and make new friends.

3. You can practice being assertive.

4. You can learn the fundamentals you need to know - like proofreading, writing a business letter, answering the telephone, etc.

5. You learn to keep smiling in the face of adversity.

6. You can get a taste of workplace politics and begin plotting your own campaign.

7. By watching your boss and others, you can learn how to perform at a higher-level job.

8. You can develop the talent of dressing well on a terrible salary.

9. You can make contacts who might help you find a better job.

10. You can increase your chances of establishing financial credit.

11. You learn to value your non-working hours and to appreciate saving for and taking vacations.

12. You can decide what kind of job you don’t want.

13. You can decide what kind of job you do want.

14. You can have something to include in your resume under “Experience,” since it’s usually easier to find a job while you’re still employed.

15. You get paid.

Source: Washington Department of Employment Security

WELFARE-TO-WORK LAW

Highlights of Washington’s new welfare law:

Five-year lifetime limit began Aug. 1. Cases involving disabilities, hardship or domestic violence may be exempted.

Welfare recipients don’t have to sign up for the new program until their annual reviews are due.

Welfare recipients will be allowed to keep half their earnings from work, instead of just one-third. They may own a car worth up to $5,000; the previous limit was $1,500. And they may keep up to $4,000 in a savings account, up from the previous limit of $1,000.

A one-time $1,500 grant is available to the working poor for emergency needs. Officials hope the “diversion” grant will keep some from enrolling on welfare.

Welfare recipients must work or look for work at least 20 hours a week. Those job hunting must contact 15 employers a week and check in weekly with case workers. A bona fide job offer must be accepted.

Subsidized child care is available during work, job hunting and training classes for welfare recipients and the working poor. Co-payments begin at $10 and increase with income.

Education for welfare recipients must lead directly to a job and not last longer than 12 months. Few will be allowed to attend college on welfare.

WorkFirst also provides a wage subsidy program in which the state will pay employers and non-profit agencies to hire welfare recipients, money for work clothing and testing fees, and medical coverage for adults and children on welfare.

Source: Department of Social and Health Services.

These sidebars appeared with the story: MORE THAN JUST A JOB A list titled “15 Good Things About a Bad Job” was distributed at a recent class teaching Spokane welfare recipients how to land jobs. It lists the following reasons for why any job is a good job: 1. You get an insider’s view of your industry. 2. You have a chance to meet new people and make new friends. 3. You can practice being assertive. 4. You can learn the fundamentals you need to know - like proofreading, writing a business letter, answering the telephone, etc. 5. You learn to keep smiling in the face of adversity. 6. You can get a taste of workplace politics and begin plotting your own campaign. 7. By watching your boss and others, you can learn how to perform at a higher-level job. 8. You can develop the talent of dressing well on a terrible salary. 9. You can make contacts who might help you find a better job. 10. You can increase your chances of establishing financial credit. 11. You learn to value your non-working hours and to appreciate saving for and taking vacations. 12. You can decide what kind of job you don’t want. 13. You can decide what kind of job you do want. 14. You can have something to include in your resume under “Experience,” since it’s usually easier to find a job while you’re still employed. 15. You get paid. Source: Washington Department of Employment Security

WELFARE-TO-WORK LAW Highlights of Washington’s new welfare law: Five-year lifetime limit began Aug. 1. Cases involving disabilities, hardship or domestic violence may be exempted. Welfare recipients don’t have to sign up for the new program until their annual reviews are due. Welfare recipients will be allowed to keep half their earnings from work, instead of just one-third. They may own a car worth up to $5,000; the previous limit was $1,500. And they may keep up to $4,000 in a savings account, up from the previous limit of $1,000. A one-time $1,500 grant is available to the working poor for emergency needs. Officials hope the “diversion” grant will keep some from enrolling on welfare. Welfare recipients must work or look for work at least 20 hours a week. Those job hunting must contact 15 employers a week and check in weekly with case workers. A bona fide job offer must be accepted. Subsidized child care is available during work, job hunting and training classes for welfare recipients and the working poor. Co-payments begin at $10 and increase with income. Education for welfare recipients must lead directly to a job and not last longer than 12 months. Few will be allowed to attend college on welfare. WorkFirst also provides a wage subsidy program in which the state will pay employers and non-profit agencies to hire welfare recipients, money for work clothing and testing fees, and medical coverage for adults and children on welfare. Source: Department of Social and Health Services.

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