Facing public backlash, two Tampa Bay job placement centers have stopped trading gift cards for hiring information from job seekers.
The interim directors of CareerSource Tampa Bay and CareerSource Pinellas ordered their staffs to stop the practice in the past week following a Tampa Bay Times story that documented how the agencies, funded by public tax dollars, handed out about $6 million in prepaid gift and gas cards since 2014. Some of the money went to people who said they found work on their own but were offered $50 Visa cards or more to tell CareerSource staffers where they found jobs.
The centers then took credit in state reports for placing some of those workers into jobs, according to records.
On both sides of the bay, leaders are now completely overhauling the practice of handing out the gift cards.
"CSTB staff must ensure that the participant is in need and eligible for all supportive services," wrote CareerSource Tampa Bay interim director Juditte Dorcy in a directive to her employees on June 29.
The prepaid cards are meant to help job seekers with specific needs — like paying for gas to get to work or clothes for an interview. But a number of recipients told the Times they never sought the help or stopped going to the centers and were given the impression they could spend the money however they wanted.
Some people received thousands of dollars in cards over several years while enrolled in training programs for engineering or heating and air conditioning. They said CareerSource staffers simply showed up and offered them the money, even though a number of the apprentices were already employed and used company vehicles to get to class.
Among other changes for CareerSource Tampa Bay is a cap of $700 in the so-called supportive services for people in a year. Dorcy also wrote that the agency is consulting with the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity to eliminate the use of Visa cards altogether.
In Pinellas, interim director Jennifer Brackney told board members last Wednesday that she had tightened the process for how her staff distributes prepaid cards. She said, for instance, they stopped sending cards in the mail last week and stopped trading them for hiring information in "March or April."
Asked by the Times to supply records showing the practice had ended, Brackney forwarded an email from March from another director, but the email didn't tell workers to stop trading the cards for hiring details.
After more questions Monday from the Times, Brackney said she ordered staff that day to stop the practice — five days after she told the board of directors something different.
The verbal directive, she said, "made it very clear" that the agency would not give cards to people not enrolled in their programs as a way to get hiring information.
Both Dorcy and Brackney have taken over the organizations in a tumultuous period. The two job centers had shared staff and a president and CEO, Edward Peachey, who was fired this spring. They are now separating under the watch of county commissions in Pinellas and Hillsborough.
The two local CareerSource offices were long praised as leaders in the state's network of 24 job placement agencies. But the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity and U.S. Department of Labor have been investigating the offices for months amid questions over whether they took credit for finding jobs for people who never sought their help.
The Times found that the agencies were fueled by numbers through a system of bonus payments that rewarded employees for securing job placements. The incentives touched other programs, too, and reporters found that leaders at CareerSource Pinellas and CareerSource Tampa Bay even handed out $40,000 in prepaid cards to their own employees as rewards in scholarship drives and wellness challenges.
They did not report those payments to the IRS, and the bonuses were not taxed.
At the CareerSource Pinellas board meeting last week, Russell Leggette, a representative of the Florida Pipe Trades, said he was disturbed to learn that the county jobs agency was not contributing to public funds when it paid those untaxed bonuses. Leggette said he fights contractors every day who similarly use under-the-table payments and shirk the system.
"I'm embarrassed to sit on this board and know that happened," he said.
Contact Mark Puente at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at email@example.com or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson.