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Efforts to Move Poor From Welfare to Work Going Slowly in Area

By Jon Jeter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 6 1997; Page A01

The bustling kitchen inside the Marriott at Metro Center in downtown Washington is a laboratory for welfare reform. Amid goat cheese and smoked salmon and the clamor of pots and pans, head chef Dennis Marcinik tries to mold jobless men and women into capable cooks.

It is, Marcinik has discovered, an unpredictable alchemy, an effort that has transformed the likes of Sabrina McWhite, a former welfare mother, into a $9-an-hour cook and the hotel's employee of the month in December.

But for every Sabrina McWhite, there have been a half-dozen recruits from the city's welfare rolls who have not worked out. Some just couldn't make it to work on time. Others didn't show up for days. One guy had a habit of making out with his girlfriend in the employee cafeteria. And one aspiring cook ate everything he could get his hands on in the hotel kitchen.

"The big plus for him was to be here and eat," Marcinik said. "We would catch him in the store room munching on the supplies. Overall, we've had some success, but there have been some challenges, and I don't need extra headaches in the kitchen."

In the nearly six months since Congress and the White House agreed to a historic overhaul of public aid to the poor, everyone from President Clinton to Govs. Parris N. Glendening (D) of Maryland and George Allen (R) of Virginia have thrown down the gauntlet to business executives and entrepreneurs: Unless they put the jobless poor to work, welfare reform will fail.

Yet despite the exhortations and the promise of tax breaks, the efforts of the Washington area's business community to recruit and hire workers off welfare so far have moved at a glacial pace.

Only a trickle of employers in Maryland, Virginia and the District – billion-dollar corporations and home-based start-ups alike – have aggressively joined the public sector's campaign to put nearly 2 million poor people to work over the next five years.

One reason may be that the overall experience has been wildly uneven. What employers are discovering is what social policy experts have been saying for years: Preparing the unskilled, dependent poor can be done, but it is rarely easy. Often, it requires the boss to become almost uncomfortably intimate with the lives of workers to navigate such problems as child-care dilemmas, abusive boyfriends, low self-esteem or even lack of bus fare.

"At one point, we were buying them alarm clocks to make sure they got to work on time," said Janet Tully, who manages Marriott's six-year-old job training program, widely considered a national model for corporate welfare-to-work efforts. "It takes patience, and it takes extra effort, and as an employer, you can't kid yourself that you can just hire this person, put them in there and walk away from them. If you do that, they're going to fail."

Five months ago, LeRetta Bowen turned to the public assistance rolls in Prince George's County to find a receptionist for her fledgling home-based real estate firm.

She found a jewel of a receptionist in Pamela Bethea, 37, a single mother of four who spent four years on welfare after her marriage ended. After a successful three-month tryout, Bethea is poised to become Real Deal Realty's first employee, a punctual, proud and productive $6-an-hour receptionist.

"My fear," Bowen recalled last month, "was that I was going to get someone who didn't really care, someone who was just going through the motions. [But] . . . this has been a match made in heaven."

The efforts of Bowen and Marriott are not merely corporate largess. For the duration of her internship with Real Deal Realty, Bethea worked in return for her welfare check, which means Bowen in essence got free help for three months.

And Marriott administrators have put nearly 600 workers through its six-week training program, called Pathways to Independence. Government subsidies for job training pay almost half the $5,000 cost for each trainee, and the venture cuts costs by reducing turnover in an industry where turnover is notoriously high and expensive. At some Marriott hotels, graduates of the Pathways project are more than twice as likely as other hotel workers to stay on the job longer than four months.

"This is not a philanthropic effort," Tully said. "We're doing this because it's good business. We're also helping to take people off the welfare rolls, and that's a good thing, but that doesn't buy stock. After you've worked with that person and helped them get to a certain point, that's an awfully good employee you have."

Hard-pressed to find employees with technological skills, American Management Systems decided to seek help from Fairfax County's public assistance rolls nearly a year ago. That's not typically the best place to find job candidates for high-tech jobs, but American's strategy was to widen the pool of job applicants, if only slightly. The decision has provided the company with a few diamonds in the rough.

With sales of more than $800 million last year and nearly 7,000 employees worldwide, American has on its payroll two workers recruited from Fairfax County's public assistance caseload. In less than eight months, Verna Thayer, 38, a mother of three who graduated from Northern Virginia Community College with an associate's degree in computers last spring, has climbed from an entry-level position to one where she buys and installs computer hardware and software for the firm's research division.

"We tried to make sure that we had a lot of support for her, and at first we gave her some really close supervision and provided her with more peers to help her than we normally would an employee," said Shahla Butler, a company vice president. "But it's worked out really well for us."

At the Hampton Inn in Warrenton, Va., General Manager Greg Merritt has hired nearly 10 workers from the welfare rolls in the last year. It's worked fairly well for the hotel, although he's had to pay more attention to details such as his employees' child-care arrangements when making out work schedules. Merritt describes two of the employees as "excellent," and one has been with the company for more than a year, longer than any other of his employees.

"When I saw a chance to help out, I knew it was good for our economy and our society," said Merritt, 39, who as a child in Ohio received welfare benefits for a while. "People have always helped me, and it stuck with me, I guess."

Few employers say they've encountered welfare recipients who are unwilling to work. Rather than laziness, they've encountered people who simply don't know how to work. Some are functionally illiterate or don't understand the importance of calling the office when they're ill. Others can't manage their paychecks well enough to afford bus fare to work sometimes or can't get to work because a boyfriend beat them the night before or an eviction notice just came in the mail.

But perhaps the most common barrier, according to employers and the workers themselves, is the low self-esteem that seems to be poverty's twin.

"Some people are just scared," said McWhite, the Marriott cook. "They've been on welfare for so long that it's all they know, and they're just scared to try something else."

When Bethea came to Real Deal Realty in November, she had been on the dole for four years. Shortly after her fourth child was born, she and her husband of eight years separated, and Bethea was forced to move back in with her mother in Suitland.

When her youngest children got older, she tried to reenter the job market, enrolling in 1995 in Prince George's County's Private Industry Council job development center. She brushed up on the computer and secretarial skills she had learned as a secretary for the federal government before her children were born, and in October agency counselors chose her for the internship program with Real Deal Realty.

Recalling her own childhood in a poor family and struggling to get her new business off the ground, Bowen thought Bethea would be a worthwhile investment.

She was punctual, enthusiastic and easy to train, Bowen said. Still, there were days when Bowen had to spend a good deal of time pushing back Bethea's self-doubt and insecurity.

"I had been through a lot," Bethea said. "I wanted to take care of my kids, and I was feeling a little embarrassed about my kids not seeing me do anything, and I didn't want them to see that.

"But the first month I was there, I mean, it was like I was walking on clouds. I started to get my motivation back. If LeRetta hadn't given me the opportunity to get out there and show my skills, I would probably just be sitting at home getting more depressed."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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