ATLANTA — With bipartisan buy-in and no big price tag, a Georgia program pairing job seekers with potential employers for on-the-job training is gaining momentum as President Barack Obama crafts a plan to tackle the nation’s bedeviling unemployment problem.
The fans of Georgia Works run the range of the political spectrum, from civil rights activist Jesse Jackson on the left to GOP leaders in Congress on the right. That would leave little to stand in the way of Obama putting the program on the national agenda. Critics have dismissed Georgia Works as means for employers to exploit people’s desperation to return to work.
Its architect, former Georgia labor commissioner Michael Thurmond, said the program simply empowers out-of-work Americans with a new tool in their quest for employment.
“If you can’t increase or revisit stimulus spending, how can you get Americans working again?” said Thurmond, now an attorney at the Atlanta firm Butler, Wooten & Fryhofer. “I think that’s the opportunity that the Georgia Works strategy presents.”
Georgia Works has been replicated in New Hampshire and won praise from Jackson, former President Bill Clinton and, on Tuesday, House Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
In a letter to the president, Boehner and Cantor urged Obama to include the Georgia Works model in the jobs proposal he plans to unveil on Thursday. They reminded Obama that they brought up the program to him twice during talks about the economy in December 2009.
“We stand ready to work with him if there is interest in implementing a similar program on the federal level,” Cantor, R-Va., said last week.
Obama seems warm to the idea. He praised Georgia Works as fresh and creative at an Aug. 17 town hall meeting in Atkinson, Ill., during his bus tour through middle America.
“There is a smart program in Georgia,” Obama said. “What they do is they say, all right, instead of you just getting unemployment insurance, just a check, what we’re going to do is we will give a subsidy to any company that hires you with your unemployment insurance so that you’re essentially earning a salary and getting your foot in the door into that company. And if they hire you full-time, then the unemployment insurance is used to subsidize you getting trained and getting a job. And so those kinds of adjustments to programs – we’ve got to be more creative in terms of not doing things the way we’ve always done them.”
Union leaders, however, escalated their criticism of the program in recent days. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka sent a letter to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis last week demanding an investigation into Georgia Works and asking whether it violates federal law.
“We believe the Georgia Works model is fundamentally unsound,” Trumka said.
Labor Department spokesman Carl Fillichio declined to say whether the agency would investigate, but said each state must determine whether those taking part in the program qualify as bona fide trainees.
Under Georgia Works, people who register with the state for unemployment benefits can volunteer to receive up to 24 hours of on-the-job training for up to eight weeks. They also receive a weekly stipend to cover costs such as child care or transportation. According to statistics compiled by the Georgia Department of Labor, 10,589 people participated in Georgia Works from February 2003 until January 2010. Of that number, 6,105 completed training and 3,363 were hired either during or at the end of their training.
An additional 1,170 people found work within 90 days of completing training, Thurmond said. Those who did not find work received a training certificate to help boost their marketability.
Two years ago, the National Employment Law Project sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Labor that criticized Georgia Works for putting people into jobs while they were collecting unemployment benefits in violation of state and federal labor laws. The group said that if participants are working, they should be paid minimum wage and should not be receiving full unemployment benefits.
“This really comes down to the distinction between employment and training,” George Wentworth, a senior staff attorney at NELP, said Wednesday. “We recognize that workers were doing this voluntarily, and that it was and continues to be a tough labor market, training is much more narrowly defined. This looked much more like employment.”
Replicating Georgia Works on a national scale certainly could help to remedy a throbbing political headache for Obama: Satisfying black supporters who have grown restive over what they perceive as his indifference to high black unemployment.
The latest jobs report released last week showed a black unemployment rate of 16.7 percent, up for the third time in as many months and the highest it’s been since 1984. Among black males, the figure was an even more stunning at 18.0 percent, and black teens are unemployed at a rate of 46.5 percent. The overall unemployment rate stood at 9.1 percent.
Despite those dismal numbers, Obama’s approval rating among blacks has remained high – 84 percent according to a Gallup poll last month. However, that popularity brings with it high expectation that Obama will eventually get around to tackling the problems raking black communities, and problem number one is unemployment.
“Black communities around the country need to know that something is being done to bring relief,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. “But it would be absolutely irresponsible for me to stand up and say the president should do a `black unemployment’ speech.”
Cleaver predicted that Obama would discuss proposals that would help to slow the rise of unemployment among blacks, but “will not necessarily be racial in their presentation.”
Blacks, Thurmond said, were more likely to volunteer for Georgia Works and complete training, but the program has been of benefit to a variety of job seekers. Seventy percent of Georgia Works participants between February 2003 and January 2010 were women, and 56 percent were blacks. Roughly 45 percent held either a high school diploma or a GED, and 12 percent held college degrees.
Georgia Works even had 12 participants who were over 90 years old.
“They needed jobs,” Thurmond shrugged. “That just shows you how flexible the strategy is.”