CareerSource centers took credit for thousands of hires they had nothing to do with

A woman seeking employment, at right, is registered by a worker with Express Employment Professionals during a recruitment event in January at the CareerSource Pinellas Science Center. (DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times)
A woman seeking employment, at right, is registered by a worker with Express Employment Professionals during a recruitment event in January at the CareerSource Pinellas Science Center. (DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times)
Published Feb. 14, 2018

Dr. Marketa Wills worked at a healthcare company in Texas when a recruiting firm asked her to consider joining Tampa's WellCare Health Plans.

The Houston resident spent months interviewing and getting licensed before she became a corporate medical director in August 2015.

She never stepped foot in a CareerSource center, created to help people find work, nor did she seek any of its services. Still, the local jobs agency took credit for helping her land the position.

"That is a lie and a fraud," Wills said. "I went through a highly respected headhunting firm. I am outraged that my name is on that list."

She's not the only one.

Both CareerSource Tampa Bay and its sister agency, CareerSource Pinellas, have taken credit for finding thousands of jobs for people who never registered for help, the Tampa Bay Times has found.

For years, the two agencies paid staffers bonuses for getting lists from companies of everyone they hired, not just the ones CareerSource directly assisted. They used the information to create profiles for each worker that they then sent to the state as evidence of people put to work.

For its investigation, the Times interviewed more than 100 people, including current and former CareerSource employees, reviewed thousands of pages of public records and analyzed a database of 126,633 job placements.

Among the findings:

• CareerSource employees described a culture obsessed with recording more job placements, fueled by the bonus system that paid staffers up to $16,800 extra a year for higher job placement numbers.

• Several large companies said they didn't know how the two CareerSource agencies were using the hiring lists. WellCare could verify fewer than 15 of the 3,353 people the agencies reported as having helped place at the company.

• The job placement numbers factor into how much funding the two agencies received from the state. They had a part in the agencies' winning $742,000 in state incentives in the past three years.

• CareerSource listed thousands of job seekers — even surgeons and pharmacists — as having registered for help finding jobs on a Friday and starting work the following Monday, according to the Times analysis. Several Pinellas sheriff's deputies were reportedly hired within days of referrals, a process Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said takes at least six months.

The Times contacted more than two dozen people who appeared in the database and nearly every one was surprised CareerSource took credit for finding their job. Donovan Small, a 25-year-old Tampa actor, said all he needed to get hired for Howl-O-Scream shows at Busch Gardens in 2016 and 2017 was a headshot and audition.

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"I've never needed to go there," Small said of CareerSource.

When the Times asked questions about the job figures last month, the U.S. Department of Labor, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement launched investigations.

Edward Peachey, who has been suspended as the president and CEO of both agencies, has said they have done nothing wrong. He said the DEO should have caught any discrepancies.

"It is something that could have been handled by monitoring through the state," Peachey said.

• • •

The state's 24 CareerSource agencies use tens of millions of tax dollars each year to help people find work.

Job seekers must register with a local career center, where they can attend workshops on subjects like resume writing, interviewing and computer skills. The agency then refers individuals to employers who have agreed to consider the candidates. For CareerSource to take credit, the employers must hire the individuals.

But the two Tampa Bay centers have found a way to bolster their numbers. They ask companies to provide lists of all new hires. They include names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, job titles, salary and start dates. CareerSource then enters the information in a state database.

Emails obtained by the Times show CareerSource recruiters encouraged employers to send new lists. In 2017, a recruiter told an official at Clearwater-based Exaxol Chemical to provide detailed hiring information, regardless of whether CareerSource played a part.

"Our funding is based on the outcomes of our services and the information is reported to the state and federal entities who provide the funding," the account executive wrote on July 12, 2017.

From 2014-2017, the two local CareerSource agencies reported helping find 17,147 people jobs at BayCare Health Systems, more than any other company, according to the DEO database. The long list included doctors, nurses and security guards. They took credit for a pharmacist who landed a $65 an hour job in March 2015 and a psychiatrist who got hired at $115 an hour last September.

But Baycare spokeswoman Amy Lovett said CareerSource did not refer anywhere near that many candidates. BayCare is now reviewing its relationship with CareerSource, Lovett wrote, and has stopped sending hiring lists.

Pamela Nabors, president and CEO at CareerSource Central Florida, said her office does not request hiring lists.

"We work directly with the people," she said. "We don't have that type of system. We are much more focused on the training part."

• • •

Typically, to receive assistance, job seekers register in-person at a CareerSource center or online. That initial registration is considered the date they were referred to CareerSource.

A recruiter would then schedule an interview with the candidate. Depending on the job posting, it could take a week or longer before CareerSource asks a company to consider a candidate.

The employer would then schedule an interview and, if needed, conduct a background check. Once the job seeker is hired and given a start date, CareerSource can take credit for the job.

Yet, according to the DEO database, CareerSource Pinellas and CareerSource Tampa Bay reported that thousands of people started jobs within days of first registering for help.

Jerome Salatino, CEO and president of CareerSource Pasco Hernando, called it "impossible" for people to get start dates for jobs so soon after enrolling at CareerSource, especially for highly-paid or technical positions.

"It doesn't happen that fast," he said.

Take WellCare, the managed healthcare services company based in Tampa. CareerSource reported that it helped 3,353 workers get jobs there since 2014.

Of those, the two CareerSource agencies indicated more than half registered on a Friday and started work the following Monday, according to the Times analysis. CareerSource Tampa Bay, for instance, reported that a vice president for investor relations registered on Friday, Feb. 13, 2015 and started three days later at $123 an hour.

WellCare spokeswoman Alissa Lawver said the company didn't know CareerSource was using the hiring lists to take credit for helping fill all those jobs. When the company reviewed the 3,353 names on the list, they could verify fewer than 15 had actually been recommended by CareerSource. Last month, it severed its ties with the job agency.

Among those whom CareerSource took credit for landing a job: Lawver, who joined WellCare in 2015.

Her reply: "I didn't go there for my job."

Charles Harris, the attorney for CareerSource Pinellas and CareerSource Tampa Bay, acknowledged last week that there are problems with how the two agencies report job numbers.

Recruiters, he said, pull names off hiring lists and take credit for them as "direct placements." The "service" they provide is to run names through databases to see if the companies are eligible for federal money to offset training costs.

Harris said that does not appear to meet federal and state guidelines for a "direct placement." He has referred the information to the DEO.

Depending on what the state concludes, Harris said close to half of the local agencies' job placements could be discredited.

Salatino, the Pasco Hernando jobs chief, said he does not consider it a service to simply run names through databases.

"We don't do that," he said.

• • •

More than a dozen CareerSource employees said their bosses cared more about numbers than doing the hard work of finding people jobs.

Workers who didn't log the minimum hiring figures each month were moved to other departments or fired, several of them said.

Geoff Newton, a recruiter at CareerSource Tampa Bay from December 2015 to February 2017, said he spent hours requesting hiring lists from federal contractors to boost job numbers.

"The only thing they cared about was getting more money from the state," Newton said.

The agencies laid out the system of bonuses in a two-page "Staff Performance Incentive Grid." Workers could earn up to $1,400 each month, or $16,800 annually, for exceeding certain benchmarks, according to the 2017-18 policy.

Employees who recorded 76 to 100 hirings each month received a $200 bonus. The amount jumped to $500 for 150 hirings. Workers earned a $200 bonus for collecting seven new hire lists in any month.

Looking back on his time at CareerSource, Newton said: "I did not help people get jobs."

• • •

The amount of funding the two agencies get from the state depends in part on the number of job placements they make, said Tiffany Vause, a spokeswoman for the DEO.

CareerSource Pinellas and CareerSource Tampa Bay won $742,000 in statewide contests since 2015, in part by ranking near the top in placements.

For example, CareerSource Pinellas won $333,333 in "Governor Scott's Reemployment Challenge," according to a news release in October. The agency boasted that it won its share by getting more than 1,270 residents off unemployment assistance and back to work.

Peachey has said that neither he nor any employee personally benefited from being a state leader in job numbers.

"Any money that comes into this organization, there is no incentive to me," Peachey said. "I do not get additional dollars based on that."

But in early 2015, when a board member questioned how to justify giving Peachey a raise, he urged the board to consider his record and the state's job placement rankings.

Peachey noted the agencies "generally earn all the incentive monies that are on the table."

"I can show you the reports that say our regions are performing at some of the best in the state…," Peachey said, according to an audio recording. "That's what you have to look at."

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