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Thursday, Jan. 27, 2011 06:13 am

‘Put Illinois to Work’ doesn’t always work

Judy Smith, president of Avenue Thrift Shop, signed up last year for Put Illinois to Work. She trained workers so they could advance to another job but says by the end of the program she would consider the experience with PIW trainees “a headache,” and the source of more problems than she has had in her 14 years with the store.

The program started in April 2010 and finished Jan. 15. PIW reportedly produced 26,000 new jobs and helped spur job growth and work experience for those battling unemployment during the recession.

“They [PIW workers] didn’t make me money, they lost me money,” Smith says.    

Trainees were paid $10 an hour through a subsidized government grant and were covered by worker’s compensation through Heartland Alliance in Chicago.

Smith added that several employees allegedly stole from her, brought significant others into the store, used their cell phones on company time and brought “a lot of issues” she wouldn’t have normally experienced.

She said that out of 10 worker-trainees, “maybe two were helpful.”

“I’ve had a bunch of people in here that have caused me grief,” she says, and added that she’s “glad they’re gone.”

Despite her experience, she says, “I’m not saying it [PIW] is unsuccessful.”

Smith adds that not everyone of the PIW trainees at the store "caused me grief." She mainly had an issue with the screening process of the program's employees.

Director of workforce empowerment at the Springfield Urban League Cheri Hoots says SUL applicants were adequately screened and that precautions were taken for quality assurance of employees.

SUL is a subcontractor for the Heartland Alliance in Chicago, and provided oversight and direction for PIW trainees who were screened for eligibility through their income and family size. SUL did not require applicants to have a  background check unless required by the trainee’s employer, but gave all employers the option of extra testing or additional interviews.

“Some employers chose to do drug screening and background checks and some of them did not,” Hoots says. “It all depended on what their normal human resource practices were.”  She added that extra precautions for business employers “were totally up to them.”

 Approximately 2,200 small businesses in Sangamon County with fewer than 50 employees, like Avenue Thrift Shop, signed up for the “Put Illinois to Work program” last year, says Hoots.    

 Employers signed a PIW agreement before the program began to insure the employers supervised and trained the new hires.

Gary Deurance, general manager of Royal Oaks Nissan of Springfield, says the program “worked out fine for the most part,” but the “quality of candidates they were providing were not to the level we were hoping they would be.”

 He says he wanted to see more efficiency during the employee selection process “so as to better meet job requirements.”

When asked about drawbacks to the program, Jill Geltmaker, director of Heartland Human Care Services and “Put Illinois to Work,” says while there were some trainees who did not work out, the same can be said for many employees in regular workplaces.

Hoots agreed. “There were some employees of course that were outstanding, who did a wonderful job and then there were others who didn’t, just like in the real world,” says Hoots.

Contact Holly Dillemuth at hdillemuth@illinoistimes.com.