Strictly Business

Teddy Maki

THE COFFEE WAS hot, the pastries were fresh, and the mood was celebratory as representatives of government, business, and nonprofits assembled in the ballroom of the City Center Marriott Hotel January 6. "Hennepin County Means Business" was the heading of the day's agenda; the goal, as County Commissioner Mary Tambornino put it, was to show private companies where to find a whole new supply of "packaged and presentable" workers.

Those workers, of course, would come from the ranks of current welfare recipients, most of whom must either find employment or lose large chunks of their checks under new state and federal welfare rules. The rules have put the private and public sectors in complementary positions. Businesses are struggling to fill lower-wage positions, especially for night shifts and weekends. Meanwhile Hennepin County must usher some 5,000 people who receive public assistance into jobs.

Participants at the forum made it clear that, at least for now, the public sector is sparing no expense. "It is our responsibility," explained County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, "to set up the infrastructure" moving people from welfare to work. Literally: The county plans to spend $137,000 on bus passes to help city residents get to jobs in the suburbs. Another $200,000 worth of grants are available to employers and agencies who want to subsidize worker transport.

In addition, before going out to their first interview, welfare-to-workers are now put through workshops teaching "soft skills" like being on time, dressing for success, and staying calm under stress. Workers--at least those on regular shifts--will also come with subsidized child care, thanks to almost $200 million in state subsidies for this year and next. Their government-paid Medical Assistance coverage will continue up to one full year after their income exceeds 120 percent of the federal poverty level. (To get to that point, a single parent of one child would have to make about $5.99 an hour.)

Finally, businesses who employ people on public assistance are eligible for "rebates"--federal tax credits totaling up to $5,900 of the first $10,000 paid to a working recipient. After all, the mantra of Minnesota's new welfare plan is "Work is expected, supported, and rewarded."

And if rewards don't do it, punishment may. Not long after the forum, about half a dozen individuals awaited their welfare-to-work orientation in the lower level of the Hennepin County Government Center. Well-groomed and a little nervous, the group got its first demonstration of hard-nosed "soft skills" instruction when two women who had difficulty finding affordable downtown parking arrived five minutes late to their 2 p.m. orientation. Such behavior is inappropriate in the real world, they were told; they'd have to return for the 7 p.m. session. Both managed to scrape up child care. Had they not come back, their monthly grant could have been cut by 10 percent. Another incident of tardiness could have cost them 30 percent of their check.

Meanwhile, back in the Marriott ballroom, panel members hurried up their speeches as the lunch hour approached: The forum had started 15 minutes past schedule to give attendees with parking trouble time to settle in. Football metaphors abounded as officials raved about the welfare "experiment" and its success stories. Bill Brumfield, the county's director of Training and Employment Assistance, cited privately sponsored training programs that take six months or less to place people in jobs paying $8 to $10.

Brumfield did not mention that such programs--sponsored by the Minnesota School of Business and Project for Pride in Living--only have room for a lucky few: PPL graduated nine in its most recent class, while the Minnesota School of Business is currently training 85 students. Most of the rest of the county's 5,000 welfare-to-workers, officials acknowledge, will probably end up in very low-wage jobs, with government subsidizing their earnings.

One little-publicized consequence of all this is that welfare under the new system will be more expensive than ever. Just paying for child care, says county reform coordinator Suzanne Gaines, generally exceeds the cost of subsidizing a parent to stay home. "It's not cost-effective on a year-by-year basis," Gaines says. "Of course in the long term we hope that it will do absolutely wonderful things. But we won't really know about that for a long time."

Even business representatives were left a little confused at the end of the workshop. During the forum's question-and-answer session, an American Express representative wondered: "We as employers are not conditioned to giving back to the community. So what else do you expect from us?"

County job developer Dana Woods ran with the ball. "We're not expecting employers to do anything extra," he assured the audience. "Please don't!"

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