Florida's Back to Work Program was announced with great fanfare in December.
Using federal stimulus dollars, the government pledged to pay up to 95 percent of salary and training costs for lower-income workers that Florida employers agreed to hire and keep on at least through September.
Within three months, 900 projects were lined up to create nearly 10,600 jobs, more than half at small businesses — child care, restaurants, lawn services.
And the nearly $200 million the federal government promised to fund the program?
So far, it's a no-show.
The program was supposed to begin Feb. 1, but the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has yet to release any money beyond funds for a small, pilot program through Citrus and Levy counties.
"We don't comment on our timetable for when money is being distributed, but I do know everybody is working really hard on this," Jesse Moore, a spokesman for Health and Human Services said Thursday.
"We're trying to get money out as quickly as possible … to get people back to work as quickly as possible."
Robby Cunningham, spokesman for the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation, said all the projects have been cleared by the state, so federal money is the final hurdle. "We're anticipating the funding coming from Health and Human Services any day," he said.
Ed Peachey, for one, isn't waiting.
Peachey runs Clearwater-based WorkNet Pinellas, one of 24 regional work force boards in Florida that are administering the program. As he waits for federal money to arrive, Peachey is prepared to dip into other funding sources in his budget so employers can start ramping up.
"This is our main priority" to help create jobs, he said. "It's huge."
When the program was unveiled late last year, Peachey scrambled over the holiday season to make December deadlines for submitting projects.
His push paid off: WorkNet lined up 18 employers promising to create 979 jobs in return for $21.3 million in federal subsidies. That's second only to Miami-Dade County in pledged job creation.
In contrast, the Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance so far has gotten approval for 20 projects in Hillsborough County, creating just 70 jobs worth $1.5 million in subsidies, according to state documents.
Among the employers who have signed up through WorkNet Pinellas: Avantair, DRS Technologies, Goodwill, St. Petersburg College, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, Sirata Beach Resort and VeriFone Inc.
Even WorkNet is tapping the subsidies to hire up to 25 people, some of whom will help run the very program paying their way.
By far, the biggest participant in Pinellas is BayCare Health Systems. The hospital network committed to hiring up to 586 workers, for which it could receive an estimated government subsidy up to $14 million. Its roster of available jobs runs the gamut: registered nurses and LPNs, surgical techs, patient care workers, a lab medical assistant, a speech therapist, a cook.
Nonprofits, like BayCare, and public entities are not required to pledge that they will keep the new hires past September.
Cunningham and others involved with the program said there is an "expectation" that private employers will keep the workers once the federal subsidy runs out in September. But there's no guarantee of long-term employment.
That short window makes it all the more urgent to fill jobs quickly, giving workers several months of on-the-job experience before the program expires. "It's always easier to find a job when you have one already, even if it's a temporary job," Peachey said.
According to HHS data, Florida so far has received only $1.7 million in subsidized employment funds, which went toward a pilot program that staffs a Department of Children and Families call center. In contrast, California has received $195 million and New York $191 million.
Getting federal funding isn't the only hold-up. There's also a concern of finding qualified candidates quickly.
Despite an unemployment rate of 11.9 percent in Pinellas and a stream of job seekers at one-stop career centers, WorkNet Pinellas so far is having trouble finding enough candidates matching the subsidized jobs.
Listings in major job sites, newspapers and WorkNet Pinellas' Web site have drawn a mild response. "I'm really surprised we haven't had more interest," Peachey said.
Jeff Harrington can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8242.