Welfare Agency Job Boom: Quantity, Not Quality

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The most remarkable thing about the job placement trend chart posted on the city Human Resources Administration website each month is what it doesn’t do.

Unlike so many other charts of economic indicators over the past two years, there is no post-Lehman plunge. Instead, the line—marking the number of city public assistance recipients who’ve reported finding at least half-time work each month over the past four years—bounces up and down, but is remarkably steady: The number of New Yorkers who left welfare for work in December 2009 was actually higher than in December 2006, when the city unemployment rate was a record low 4.3 percent.

With New York City now in its eighth straight month of double-digit unemployment, it’s a figure that may seem hard to believe. And, especially amid past criticism of the city’s job placement efforts for people receiving welfare, it’s led some policy watchers to speculate that the city is somehow cooking its books.

The reality, according to HRA deputy commissioner Seth Diamond, is far simpler: There may be fewer jobs overall, but some sectors are still hiring. “I think it reflects very strongly the strength of the city’s entry-level economy,” he says. “The city is not just one economic structure. Some of the industries that have withstood the economy best, like health care and education, are areas where we are able to place people.”

Figures supplied by HRA to City Limits showing job placement in 2009 by job sector bear Diamond’s claim out. The most common positions by far are in sales (13.1 percent), home health services (12.1 percent), food services (7.9 percent), and child care (7.5 percent). Projections by the Independent Budget Office in its latest city budget analysis concur: The only industries that will have recovered to their 2008 employment levels by 2013, according to the IBO, are health care, education, and leisure and hospitality—all heavy in the kind of low-skilled, entry-wage work that welfare-to-work programs have typically relied on.

Still, says Rebecca Brown Cesarani of the New York City Employment and Training Coalition, an umbrella group representing city workforce development agencies, placing people in jobs has “absolutely” become more difficult since the economic crash. “We haven’t done a survey since [the start of] 2009, and that’s when things really started to turn south. But word of mouth is, yes, it is getting harder.”

That’s certainly the story at Seedco, a coalition member that has several job training contracts with HRA, as well as operating Manhattan’s Workforce1 Career Center under a contract with the Department of Small Business Services. “It’s not that there are no jobs in New York, there are just different jobs,” says Seedco senior vice president Francine Delgado. And in many cases, “different” means “worse.”

And in many cases, different means worse. While Diamond may be correct that there are still entry-level jobs available, “entry level” is increasingly being defined downwards, according to job placement professionals.

“We’ve historically done a good job of placing people in full-time jobs, meaning 30 hours or more,” says Delgado. “And there’s a lot less of that these days.” In addition, she says, even fewer employers than usual are providing benefits. As a result, Seedco has had to devote more time to helping its clients access public benefits—primarily food stamps, Medicaid, and the earned income tax credit—that they can use to supplement their limited incomes.

And things don’t necessarily look brighter for creating quality jobs in the near future, even in what are considered growth industries. In health care, for example, while the coming shift to electronic medical record-keeping has been touted as creating new jobs, Delgado is less sure. “We’ve done our research, and we’re not convinced that there are going to be that many jobs for low-income New Yorkers in that field,” she says. Instead, she expects, current medical workers will likely be retrained to take the new positions. “We’re seeing that a lot of hospitals are still laying people off, and there are still lots of closures.”

Where Delgado has seen growth in the health care field is in home health aides, something that she ties to the aging of the baby boom generation. Those jobs, however, are typically poorly paid compared to more skilled health workers; she says Seedco is currently trying to identify employers with relatively better pay and benefits to direct clients to.

The much-hyped “green jobs” sector holds potentially more promise, according to Delgado. “Two years ago, I would have told you there are no green jobs,” she admits, believing that those positions, too, would be filled by retrained current workers. But she’s since changed her mind: Subsidies in the 2009 federal stimulus package for low-income homeowners to weatherize their homes will require 45,000 housing units to be upgraded in the state in the next two years, she says; after that, Bloomberg’s PLANYC goal of mandating building retrofits is expected to create 15,000 permanent jobs. (Though the mayor’s proposed requirement that all large buildings conduct energy-efficiency renovations was dropped after resistance from landlords, other green policies remain in place.

“There’s a significant amount of work to be done, and there’s not necessarily a trained and prepared labor force who will be available to take up this expansion of work,” says Delgado. Seedco has now launched a small training program, funded with stimulus dollars through the state Department of Labor, to teach weatherization skills to 110 clients culminating in a three- to six-month internship that will hopefully lead to permanent employment.

For Diamond, the fact that people are still being placed into jobs, even if more poorly paid ones, is still a positive. “I think it does reinforce the strength of our overall program, that even in difficult times, both our workers and our partner vendors are still giving out the message that people must go to work, which I think is important. I worry sometimes that people will sort of give up and throw up their hands, but that’s not happened.” (One reason agencies like Seedco don’t give up, he admits: “Our vendors are paid only if they get people jobs. So they can’t ride out the recession.”)

Delgado says the bigger problem isn’t getting people into jobs, but what they do next. “How do you really ensure ongoing success for folks? That’s the big question right now.”