Putting People to Work

TIMES STAFF WRITER

President Clinton has urged employers to put welfare recipients to work. Fortune 500 executives have responded with hiring programs that have garnered plenty of free publicity.

But the success of America's great welfare-to-work experiment ultimately rests with the likes of Kim DeVane. The manager of a janitorial supply warehouse tucked into an anonymous Bell industrial strip has hired two of the company's 15 employees through Greater Avenues for Independence, or GAIN, Los Angeles County's principal welfare-to-work program.

"Companies that complain about big government now need to turn around and become part of the solution," said DeVane, branch manager of LaGasse Bros. Inc. "It's time to do some things differently."

With 150,000 local welfare recipients slated to move from welfare to work in the next few years, Los Angeles County is going to need an army of Kim DeVanes. In the face of that tremendous load, GAIN is stepping up its efforts to recruit more employers. Meanwhile, some of the county's large companies have joined forces to encourage others to hire workers off the dole.

But in an area where the vast majority of employers are tiny, Los Angeles can move big numbers only by thinking small. Communities such as San Francisco are further along in their efforts to mobilize small businesses, having recognized that welfare reform won't succeed without them.

"It's make or break," said Scott Hauge, chairman of the California Small Business Assn., who helped develop the San Francisco program. "If small business doesn't get involved, it's not going to happen."

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Small businesses haven't exactly been sitting on the sidelines when it comes to hiring welfare recipients. The national Welfare to Work Partnership, a nonprofit founded in 1996 by leviathans such as United Parcel Service and Burger King to encourage private-sector participation, now has a membership dominated by small firms, according to spokesman Luis Vizcaino.

Likewise, Los Angeles County GAIN chief John Martinelli estimates that 80% of the 42,000 program participants placed in jobs last year went to work for small businesses in the Los Angeles area.

"We've had most of our success with small firms because they dominate the market here," said Martinelli, whose program teaches resume writing, interviewing techniques and other "soft" skills. "That's where the jobs are in L.A."

The trick, he says, will be encouraging a lot more of them to participate as federal deadlines approach for moving people from welfare rolls to payrolls. About 150,000 Los Angeles County welfare recipients must make the transition, with 20% required to be actively working by the end of this year.

Martinelli says the key is to persuade small-business owners that GAIN can supply them with good help in a tight job market, with the added sweetener of tax incentives and cost savings to boot. Rather than play on employers' philanthropic instincts, GAIN markets itself as an employment service that delivers qualified workers quickly and performs all the pre-hiring legwork free of charge.

That's no trivial benefit, according to DeVane, who, like others running small businesses, is a one-person human resources department. He says GAIN has supplied quality employees in a fraction of the time it would take him to run help-wanted ads, screen candidates and conduct interviews.

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"It used to take me a week to hire a warehouse worker. Now it's a couple of hours," DeVane said. "Quite frankly, I prefer hiring someone they've recommended than someone who has walked in off the street."

GAIN also is touting tax credits--up to $8,500 per employee under one federal program--that employers can reap by hiring workers off public assistance. Not to mention the transportation and child-care subsidies that these workers carry with them to the job.

But some observers are skeptical that droves of small businesses will be swayed by such incentives, particularly when it comes to hiring the least-qualified prospects.

"Small businesses simply don't have the excess managerial time to deal with people who aren't ready to work," said J. Eugene Grigsby III, a professor of urban planning and director of UCLA's Advanced Policy Institute. "Big businesses and government have the infrastructure to deal with those issues. But when you're running lean and mean, you can't afford many missteps."

Such concerns are shared by many business owners, many of whom wouldn't know where to begin to hire a welfare recipient even if they wanted to.

Enter the Welfare-to-Work Leadership (WWL).

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Formed last fall, the mission of this little-known group is to mobilize the Los Angeles business community to take an active role in getting residents off the dole.

The group was founded by Los Angeles Business Advisors--an influential group of 24 chief executives of major Southland corporations that includes Los Angeles Times Publisher Mark H. Willes--in conjunction with the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and a handful of area foundations.

It has yet to make a big splash in business circles, having spent the last six months just figuring out which agencies are doing what with regard to welfare reform in the Southland.

"We didn't want to be redundant or competitive," said interim executive director David Rattray. "We want to be a leader and a supporter. . . . But you only get one shot at the business community so we wanted to make sure we knew what our role would be."

Having just inked commitments from a variety of public and private players to work together on welfare reform, the group is now gearing up to take its case to area businesses. A major thrust will be outreach: stumping for welfare reform, explaining its bottom-line benefits, dispensing information and linking employers to agencies that can get them started.

"We are in fact a peer [in the business community], so we have some built-in credibility," Rattray said. "That's the gap I see us filling."

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Whether a group spearheaded by some of Los Angeles' largest businesses can spur mom-and-pops to action remains to be seen.

In the meantime, San Francisco has taken a much different tack. Recognizing that small employers are the linchpin to a successful welfare-to-work effort, business leaders there designed a program specifically to appeal to them, Hauge said.

For example, extensive interviews with small-business owners during the planning stages revealed that many were leery about hiring former welfare recipients, fearing increased unemployment and workers' compensation claims if those employees didn't pan out.

To address those concerns, Hauge says the program's developers built a trial period into the system. It allows employers to try out a welfare recipient for up to 90 days and pay their wages through a nonprofit intermediary before making a decision to add them to the payroll.

The Job Network program will launch this summer with modest goals of placing 200 Bay Area welfare recipients in the first year and aggressive plans for expansion if mom-and-pops prove receptive.

"We approached this by viewing small businesses as the customer," Hauge said. "We figured we'd have better success if we found out what was preventing them from hiring people off welfare, then trying to eliminate those barriers."

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One of the biggest hurdles facing GAIN and other welfare-to-work programs is convincing employers that public assistance recipients are not damaged goods. Employers like Angelika Tamms say such stereotypes are preventing other small businesses from tapping a valuable pool of workers that she has discovered in a tight job market.

Over the last year, the director of the Carson Retirement Center's 76-bed Alzheimer's unit has hired four former welfare recipients as caregivers. Three are still with the center, something of a small miracle in an industry with revolving-door turnover.

One of those aides, 29-year-old Sheryl Jones, was recently named employee of the month for her dedication to residents suffering the ravages of dementia.

"People who've been on welfare know what it's like to get kicked around. They have compassion and they bend over backwards for these seniors," Tamms said. " . . . I feel so strongly that other businesses and the public have to support programs like GAIN. You can't complain about the system and not give a little back."

Businessman Gerald Washington shares a similar philosophy. The owner of I/C CALS, a small San Bernardino-based facility maintenance company, hired a GAIN participant who has turned out to be one of his most dependable employees.

"I'm fiscally conservative and don't consider myself a do-gooder," Washington said. "But somewhere along the line you've got to open the door for someone else."

The success of welfare reform in Los Angeles may well depend on it.

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Where to Sign Up

Business owners interested in hiring workers off public assistance can get more information by calling the GAIN (also known as CalWorks) office in their area:

Los Angeles County: (626) 350-4750

Orange County: (714) 834-8967

Riverside County: (909) 358-3863

San Bernardino County: (909) 433-3300 or (800) 451-JOBS*

San Diego County: (619) 692-JOBS

Ventura County: (805) 652-7831

Or call David Rattray, interim director of the Welfare-to-Work Leadership: (213) 486-3222

*The toll-free number is available only to callers in area codes 619, 714, 760, 907 and 909.

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