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Florida's Back to Work program falls short of its goals

Adelsha Flynn, 19, was hired through the Back to Work program to be a sales associate at a Goodwill Industries store in Tampa. She is now in a permanent full-time job that will remain after federal funding dries up.

Courtesy of Goodwill

Adelsha Flynn, 19, was hired through the Back to Work program to be a sales associate at a Goodwill Industries store in Tampa. She is now in a permanent full-time job that will remain after federal funding dries up.

Florida's Back to Work Program hasn't quite worked as envisioned.

At first, the government's pledge to pick up at least 80 percent of salary and training costs for certain lower-income workers lured thousands of employers. Florida was poised to receive about $126 million in federal stimulus dollars to pay for some 14,000 new jobs lined up in the private sector.

But with the funding spigot set to close as soon as today, the results did not come close to meeting those goals:

• Employers statewide filled only 5,500 of 13,787 jobs approved for funding over the past six months. Nearly 8,300 jobs have been left vacant, with employers either unable to find suitable candidates or backing away from promised jobs because of the still-shaky economy.

• With hiring conditions still tepid, companies have already eliminated some of the subsidized jobs. The state, which had hoped many of the jobs would become permanent, could not say exactly how many positions have ended already or will dry up along with the federal subsidies.

• Back to Work funded some jobs that likely would have been created without the federal incentive.

Sirata Beach Resort in St. Pete Beach is a case study for what went wrong.

State documents show Sirata qualified for federal subsidies for creating 19 jobs. As of this week, only one of the subsidized workers was still on the payroll.

What happened to other hires? Some quit; some were let go, especially after the oil spill in the gulf dampened tourism, according to Lavonne Derringer, Sirata director of human resources.

Derringer was lukewarm about whether the federal incentives worked as intended, saying hiring decisions were driven by demand, not subsidies.

"(The Back to Work program) helped," she said. "But certainly if we had the need, we would have hired regardless."

Problems from start

What Florida calls its Back to Work program is actually an emergency stimulus grant funded nationwide through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. The program nationally is credited with helping pay for up to 130,000 full-time jobs for low-income adults with children and another 123,000 summer youth jobs.

To qualify, employers agreed to keep the hires until at least today.

Gov. Charlie Crist and the state's network of workforce boards had high expectations that Back to Work would help the state whittle down its double-digit unemployment.

But problems arose from the get-go.

Emergency grants from the program were supposed to be released Feb. 1, but it took more than a month before Florida received any federal funding beyond money for a tiny pilot program in Levy and Citrus counties.

Once money arrived, some employers felt the pool of candidates sent to them for consideration was either too small or unqualified. Some jobless, meanwhile, complained that qualifications for the program were too restrictive. Applicants had to meet low-income requirements and have children under 18 living with them.

Some of the state's workforce boards embraced the program. Others gave it short shrift, such as the Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance in Hillsborough County.

As Back to Work launched, the Hillsborough alliance was embroiled in an investigation into allegations of lavish spending and subsequent resignation of director Renee Benton Gilmore. Despite representing the largest county in the region, the agency approved only 77 Back to Work jobs.

"When it comes to Hillsborough, the program never really got off the ground like it did in Pinellas," said WorkNet Pinellas president Ed Peachey, who was recruited to simultaneously run the Hillsborough agency after the management shakeup.

WorkNet Pinellas, in contrast, was one of the most aggressive promoters of the program, placing a total of 533 jobs or 10 percent of jobs created statewide.

By far the biggest participant in Pinellas was BayCare Health Systems, which initially committed to hiring up to 586 workers. If BayCare had reached its hiring goals, it would have qualified for $14 million in subsidies.

But spokeswoman Amy Lovett said the hospital network had only hired 248 as of Sept. 1. Part of the problem was finding enough qualified candidates for positions such as licensed practical nurse. And like Sirata Beach Resort, BayCare would likely have hired the workers without stimulus money, Lovett said.

The good news: BayCare plans to retain all the workers full-time when the subsidies end.

With BayCare, Sirata and other employers pulling back, WorkNet Pinellas filled only a little over half of the thousand jobs it had lined up in February.

To Peachey, the shortfall isn't an indictment of the placement program, but rather an indictment of the lingering recession.

Some employers lost confidence that the economy would improve by Sept. 30, he said, so they backed off from hiring workers they might be forced to lay off later.

"You always hope for the best when you start out," he said, "but in order for the best to happen, the economy has to start turning around, too, and that hasn't necessarily started to happen."

Some jobs created

The merits and shortfalls of the program are in the spotlight in Washington, D.C., as supporters have pushed — so far, unsuccessfully — for an extension. Crist is among those lobbying for more money. The pending shutdown of the program "has made it very difficult to retain employers already engaged and recruit new businesses," the governor wrote in a letter earlier this month to U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Pensacola.

In his letter, Crist deemed the program a success and maintained that more than 1,400 Florida employers have "the potential" to create more than 14,000 jobs for low-income individuals if funding were extended.

Robby Cunningham of the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation, which oversees unemployment issues, also stressed the program's up side.

"During a time when many businesses were laying off workers, or in some cases closing, those that participated in the Back to Work program were able to remain open or even grow," Cunningham said in a statement. "For the families who may not otherwise have had a paycheck or any kind of meaningful employment opportunities, the Florida Back to Work program has been life-changing, and this agency and our partners are very proud to have been part of this effort."

Adelsha Flynn, for one, is grateful the program was created. Flynn, 19, was hired in March through Back to Work as a temporary sales associate at Goodwill Industries' Hillsborough Avenue retail store in Tampa. In July, she was upgraded to a permanent, full-time worker with benefits, a job that will continue once federal subsidies end.

"It's good to be working again. I was out of work for a while," said Flynn, who commutes to her job from Ruskin.

But even Flynn's story underscores Back to Work's shortcomings. Goodwill/Suncoast originally pledged to hire 96 workers through the program, but it hired only six. One of those six resigned after becoming pregnant and finding the work too strenuous, Goodwill spokeswoman Michael Ann Harvey said.

"We had hoped to hire more under the stimulus program, but apparently the referrals just didn't come from the workforce organization as we had hoped," Harvey said. Also hampering hiring: Some job candidates pulled out because of child care or transportation issues and, for some, minimum wage salaries of $7.25 to $7.50 an hour were a turnoff.

Goodwill turned to another labor pool to fill the positions.

It hired 30 people with criminal records through its "offenders in transition" program.

Jeff Harrington can be reached at jharrington@sptimes.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jeffmharrington.

14,000

Jobs Florida's Back to Work program was intended to create.

$126 million

Federal stimulus available to the state to help pay employers for creating the 14,000 jobs.

5,500

Jobs the program actually created.

Florida's Back to Work program falls short of its goals 09/29/10 [Last modified: Friday, October 1, 2010 12:35pm]

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