State

Caught between benefits, training

For the unemployed in the Central Valley, finding a job can become a frustrating Catch-22.

To get a new job, they need vocational training. But if they get training, they might lose their unemployment check. If they lose their unemployment, they won't have the means to support themselves, because they've lost their jobs.

And therein lies the problem.

A bureaucratic breakdown has cut off benefits to some, even though they are entitled to continue receiving unemployment checks while in training programs funded by the federal government's $787 billion economic stimulus bill, say directors of valley work force assistance centers.

"These are people who are trying to do the right thing. They've done their homework. They've found an area where there is hiring going on," said Blake Konczal, executive director of the Fresno County Workforce Investment Board, whose mission is to steer the unemployed into promising careers.

"The system should be designed to help them. In some instances, it is not."

In short, people who could benefit from training aren't signing up for fear they will lose their unemployment checks.

State Employment Development Department officials say they are aware of the problems -- which are occurring statewide -- and are working to fix them. But in the meantime, some unemployed workers who need training are going without, even though there are services available.

Martha Sanchez is a specialist supervisor with Alliance Worknet Family Services. She supervises the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act unit in Stanislaus County. She said a verification process that once took one or two weeks from the EDD now takes four to six.

Normally, residents must be looking for work to collect unemployment checks. But if recipients enroll in a special initiative called the California Training Benefits Program, they can collect the money even if they spend all their time training.

Surge and backlog

To qualify for the continued unemployment benefits, residents must interview over the phone with the state. But with so many people out of work, demand has surged. The backlogs that result force people to wait up to eight weeks for an interview, valley work force officials say.

As people wait, the state has in some cases stopped sending unemployment checks to those in training programs because they are not entitled to aid while in training. Unless they have been approved for the benefits continuation program.

As word of the delays spread, some people have avoided signing up for training for fear of having their unemployment benefits cut off.

"We have run into that (in Stanislaus County)," Sanchez said. "We are seeing that some customers don't want to take that chance. They pursue other services that, really, they should do after they get training."

It's a troubling trend in the valley, where officials have long blamed the region's economic troubles on an undereducated and ill-prepared work force.

For Virgil Brocchini, the risk of missing even one unemployment check was too much to take.

The 42-year-old Fresno resident was laid off in January from his job as facility maintenance manager for a beauty products distribution center.

After meeting with officials from the Fresno County Workforce Investment Board, he took some tests and decided to pursue a career as an electrocardiogram technician.

Brocchini was ready to take a three-month training course paid for with federal stimulus money but backed out after he caught wind of potential hang-ups with his unemployment checks.

"I couldn't take the chance," said Brocchini, who relies on the $450 weekly payment to feed his wife and two children. "I got scared. I can't risk it. I wish I could have got the training, though."

The irony is that the federal government has poured millions of dollars into retraining people such as Brocchini. Stanislaus County received $3.2 million in ARRA funds to serve dislocated workers, according to Alliance Worknet director Jeff Rowe.

Training programs unfilled

Because of the state glitches, some training programs are going unfilled, said Carole Goldsmith, vice chancellor of educational services and work force development at West Hills Community College District.

Case in point: The district is launching a partnership to train people in crop irrigation, a growing field as valley farmers try to stretch limited water supplies. The course still has about 15 openings out of about 20 available, Goldsmith said.

"We're hearing anecdotally that people want to start training, but they're scared. They don't want to be without their income for one to two months," she said.

In Stanislaus County, Sanchez said despite the reluctance of some individuals to register, the Alliance Worknet is not having any difficulty getting people to sign up for training. In fact, with 16.6 percent unemployment in the county reported for October, there is more interest than ever.

"We have such a high demand. Our demand has been very, very steady," she said. "So no, big no, we don't have empty programs."

Alliance Worknet contracts with a couple of dozen training providers throughout the county to help displaced workers.

The Employment Development Department is aware of the delays as a result of "unprecedented workload levels," spokesman Rick Macias said in an e-mail. But recipients typically are waiting "two to three" weeks to complete phone interviews, not the eight weeks that valley officials said it was taking, he said.

"We are making every effort to conduct eligibility interviews as quickly as possible and working to streamline the California Training Benefit approval process," he said.

Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at mrowland@modbee.com or 578-2284.

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