CalWorks class taught by career Consultant LaShawn Hyse at the Arbor Education and Training Center in Anaheim. (Photo by: Tracy Wood)

Monday, February 7, 2011 | The man standing in front of the class at the Arbor Education and Training job center in Anaheim read aloud what he plans to say about himself the next time he’s face-to-face with a prospective employer.

When he was done, he got something those who have been out of work for a long time often receive very little of — positive reinforcement.

The class stood and gave him a round of “desk applause,” a cheerful rumble of encouragement created by slapping the palms of their hands on the desktops.

“A lot of the people (who go through the classes) have never seen this,” said Ben Blank, deputy director of the Orange County Social Services Agency’s Family Self-Sufficiency Division. “They’ve never had their small successes validated in their lives.”

For the past 17 years, Arbor has helped an estimated 3,600 parents a year write resumes, learn interviewing skills and in many instances find jobs. It is a lifeline for many who otherwise would have little, if any, chance of finding work.

Arbor’s classes are funded by the state’s CalWorks program and have helped thousands of welfare parents find work.

However, if Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget proposal becomes a reality, several thousand other parents in Orange County who have been through training but have not found work will be dropped, along with their children, from the welfare program.

All told the county could end up having to cut off about 5,000 Orange County families, according to county estimates.

Brown is recommending that after four years on the program, adults and their children stop receiving financial aid through the state’s welfare-to-work program, said Blank.

Currently, adults with minor children can remain in the CalWorks program for five years while they search for jobs. When adults are dropped, the children continue to receive assistance. But Brown’s plan would stop payments for children as well, although families still might receive food stamps and MediCal, if they qualify.

In addition, for families still in CalWorks, after school childcare would be eliminated for 11 and 12 year olds under Brown’s plan. Overall grants to the remaining families would be cut by 13 percent.

County officials caution that the governor only has discussed general outlines of his proposal to eliminate a $25.4 billion budget shortfall. He has proposed major reductions in higher education spending, pay cuts for state employees and elimination of redevelopment agencies in addition to slashing health and welfare programs by $1.5 billion.

And Brown hasn’t said what he will propose if the Legislature and voters fail to approve an extension of $9 billion in temporary sales, income and vehicle tax increases. He has said he will ask the Legislature to call a special election in June. If the extensions are rejected, Brown’s proposed cuts could go deeper.

Last year, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger tried to eliminate the entire CalWorks program in an effort to help balance the budget, but was rebuffed by the Legislature.

Work for Welfare

CalWorks, or California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids, was born out of the welfare reform laws of the 1990s, which were designed to limit how long parents could remain on welfare and assist them getting back in the workforce.

An estimated 24,000 families, totaling about 58,000 parents and children, are enrolled in the Orange County program, according to county figures. “These are needy families in Orange County,” said Blank.

In general, he said, a family would apply to the CalWorks program and be assigned a social worker. They would undergo a thorough assessment, not just of their finances, but of the job skills of the parent or parents and issues, like domestic abuse or substance abuse that might be keeping them from working.

“From the minute they walk in the door,” Blank said, “we’re always evaluating for potential barriers to address.”

And, he said, they try to begin treating serious barriers, like substance abuse, right away and get it under control before the search for work begins.

Some might be enrolled in courses to obtain their high school diploma or other basic education classes.

Arbor, which, in addition to the center in Anaheim, runs the county’s three other job centers in Santa Ana, Cypress and in south county, has a four to six week program designed to make sure the welfare workers are as prepared as possible to meet potential employers.

“Be Punctual” is a message constantly reinforced by instructors and repeated on posters throughout the center. If someone is late to class, others “very kindly and very gently” wave red flags, a visual rebuke for tardiness or other unprofessional behavior.

“When we don’t hold people accountable,” said Program Supervisor Sandi McGuire, “they may lose that job. So from day one, we prepare them for things like that.”

For those who lack the proper work wardrobe, specialized charities collect and distribute two outfits that can be combined with the potential workers’ existing clothes for a professional appearance.

The Great Recession which began to impact Orange County in late 2007 has made it much more difficult for everyone who is unemployed to find work, not just those who qualify for welfare.

But there are jobs out there, the program leaders said. Among the most available are solar panel installation, water filtration, weatherization home improvements, and specialized warehouse positions that require a license to operate machinery.

The classroom walls are lined with leads to other positions: sales, restaurant work, housekeeping, cashier, computer tech and more.

Arbor executives said they place workers in $60,000 a year jobs as well as those that pay less. They work with employers to make sure applicants are ready when they are sent on an interview, a step which gives employers confidence in those who come through the CalWorks programs, they said.

Of roughly 80 people who were enrolled in the program in January, 40 either started school for retraining or found jobs. The rest will continue to look, under the supervision of their social worker as long as they are in CalWorks. Adults in the program must spend 32 hours a week either searching for work or in training.

And if they keep trying, they can count on good feedback. It can be smiles from instructors or cheers from classmates and the presentation of a symbolic “Payday” candy bar when someone lands a job.

And then there are all the different ways of offering applause, the “desk applause” being just one.

There’s the “angel” applause, finger tips together under the chin as if praying and then clapping and several others, including the “thunder and lightening” a stamping, clapping cacophony of support.

“Everybody’s having a difficult time finding a job” because of the economy, said Blank. But the county’s CalWorks program has “been very successful in reducing (welfare) caseloads. We hope to keep it in tact to the extent possible.”

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