This is the third installment of an occasional series on the public system that's supposed to help the unemployed and Philadelphia's businesses find each other.
Critics have argued the system to help Philadelphians find work is already broken. Now, funding to help Philadelphians find jobs has been slashed by about 50 percent, too.
There were once nine state-funded job centers, also known as EARN centers, where Philadelphians receiving public assistance would get help finding a job. Now there are six.
"We knew in mid-November and everything had to be closed out by the end of December," said Carol Goertzel, who used to run one of the closed centers. The sign is still up over the front entrance of her old office, in North Philadelphia.
Today though, a metal grill is down over the front entrance — and a hand-written note has the address of another EARN Center about a mile away. The center was closed six months ago.
"The people that were coming to our EARN center were very distressed. They had developed relationships with the staff," said Goertzel. "They were moving forward."
Goertzel's center — and, in fact, every center in the system — were not meeting high performance goals set by the state. And then they were cut much more severely than anyone had expected.
Mark Edwards, who oversees all the centers as president of the Philadelphia Workforce Development Corporation, walks a fine line, saying the system could not weather further reductions but that it has handled cuts well so far by using its resources effectively.
"Certainly we'd like to have more money to be able to meet the demand that we have," Edwards said. "But as a result of the current funding cuts, we had to make the adjustment that we had to make."
Goertzel has doubts about what the reduced system can accomplish. She says she learned that 50 percent of her clients didn't show up to their new EARN center the first month.
"The funding for workforce development and literacy is so diminished that I feel it's really going to harm the city because there'll be fewer people prepared to take jobs," said Goertzel.
The Workforce Development Corporation says 61 percent of clients from the three shuttered EARN centers made the switch to another center. Others had various outcomes, including the closure of their cash benefits.
Outside observers think some of them may have lost their benefits because they did not make the move on time. The state's Department of Public Welfare has also changed the rules for who gets sent to an EARN center for help finding work. Because of budget constraints, the department now requires that people with certifications or who had jobs recently pursue "independent" job searches on their own. They're expected to report back to the County Assistance Office. All in all, the EARN centers see 10,000 fewer people — about a third of clients.
Edwards argues that this means the cuts aren't as severe as they seem. But the cuts raise questions about what the system can still offer its remaining job seekers.
Councilman W. Wilson Goode Jr. says that the entire job search system isn't just slimming down. It's transforming. "They are clearly two different organizations," said Goode. "There's absolutely no way to evaluate a $50 million organization compared to a $120 million."
Anne Bale, spokeswoman for the Department of Public Welfare, says some training and literacy programs were cut simply because they didn't produce clear results. "We stopped funding it because it had limited outcomes and did not necessarily translate into jobs," said Bale. "Our focus is jobs." she adds that the state is aimed at "moving clients rapidly into employment and off of assistance."
Edwards also says that the workforce development system is undergoing a massive restructuring that will make its programs more efficient. It is due to be completed this summer. But the funding reductions have put Michael Froehlich on alert. The attorney with Community Legal Services says he finds himself in the ironic position of defending a system that he thought should be doing a lot more.
"In the past, we've sort of been critics of the program for not offering sufficient education and training," Froehlich said. "However as the programs have been more and more tailored to the work-first model, we found ourselves in the ironic position of trying to save what we previously had criticized."
Froehlich says the cuts come along with a move to push clients into the first available job for their existing skill set. He says those jobs don't always deliver good paychecks and cutting the system's funding won't make the situation any better.
Kristen Rantanen, who works for a nonprofit that runs one of the remaining jobs center for clients, is trying to figure if it will get any worse. She carries the relevant chapter of Governor Corbett's proposed budget with her, wherever she goes. She has read the thick document full of post-it notes at least six times so far: at the office, on her couch at night, looking for clues and not just in the obvious places.
Rantanen says funding for workforce development hasn't gone down again this year, but she thinks cuts to other budget items could reduce work opportunities for clients, "with a need for medical assistance, with a need for food stamps, sort of ancillary supports that help them get their lives back together, and make it possible for them to focus on finding work and staying gainfully employed." She says not just an Excel spreadsheet; it's about people. "Small cuts have huge implications on the ground where we do our work."