JERSEY CITY, N.J. - It's 9:30 on a Tuesday morning in this gritty city, and Onel Villares of Curtis & Associates Inc. is facing a classroom of 12 welfare recipients, some bored and some anxious.
"Who right now, here, is looking for a job?" A few hands rise. tTC Who is not looking for a job?" A few others go up. "And who's not answering?" The remainder raise hands amid sheepish laughter.
Unperturbed, Villares paces the room.
"Understand, the laws are changing, and right now with the new welfare reform, what they're saying is you have a few choices," Villares says, reinforcing his words with dramatic hand gestures and deep-knee bends. The choices, he says, are find a job, or take the Curtis course and learn how to find a job.
A walking advertisement
Villares, 32, is a walking advertisement for what Curtis says it can achieve with welfare clients at its "self-sufficiency center" here.
The center is an outcropping along the fault lines of welfare reform, the historic shift of 1930s-vintage government policy ushered in by last year's law requiring work after two years of public assistance.
Curtis runs 70 such centers in 11 states, all part of a welfare consulting business with $5.7 million in contracts with governments ranging from the county of San Francisco and nine other counties in Northern California to the New York State Department of Social Services.
The company's posture is relentlessly upbeat. Receptionists at the Curtis headquarters in Kearney, Neb., lace their phone greetings with the company's mantra: "What a difference a job makes."
"We try to re-enthrone work as a guiding principle," said Dean Curtis, the 43-year-old former University of Nebraska speech professor who started the company in 1985.
Many welfare recipients are single parents with no work experience.
Child care is expensive, and recipients frequently view neighborhood babysitters as unreliable. Going off welfare also implies loss of Medicaid benefits.
Welfare recipients often lack basic job-seeking tools: a resume, a fax machine, a telephone or a reliable way of receiving messages. In its contract with local governments, Curtis agrees to provide all that.
In Jersey City, the office fax machine is available to enrollees. The center offers them a "hello" line, a phone number for prospective employers that is answered by a message-taker in the office. Classroom instructors teach resume-writing skills.
Still, there are built-in headwinds. With a population of 226,000, Jersey City is a melting pot of longtime Irish-American, Italian-American and African-American blue-collar families, combined with recent immigrants from India, the Middle East and the Philippines.
City economy troubled
Despite some business and residential spillover from neighboring New York, Jersey City's economy is troubled. The factories and docks that gave work to previous generations now are in decline or boarded up.
Unemployment nationwide is 4.9 percent but it hovers around 8.3 percent here.
Jersey City is in Hudson County, which contracts with Curtis to pay the company for each welfare recipient placed in a job, plus a bonus for those who stay employed more than 90 days.
Dolores Singletary, director of the Curtis office here, estimates the yearly value of the contract at $429,000.
Public employee unions say companies such as Curtis have an incentive to get easy-to-place recipients into jobs and forget the more difficult cases. Tony Copeland, spokesman for the 1.3 million-member American Federation of State, County and Muncipal Employees, labeled it "creaming."
Singletary disagreed, saying Curtis gives equal attention to all who walk through its doors. "You have to love this kind of work," she said. "You couldn't get paid enough to do this kind of job only for money."
In 1996, the center put 446 welfare recipients through its four-week course and placed 323 of them in jobs, and 280 of those stayed working 90 days or more.
A 'go-getter company'
Mariano Vega, chief of the Hudson County Division of Social Services, called Curtis a "go-getter company" that gives clients a psychological boost, something that cannot be easily replicated by a state bureaucracy "that runs on auto pilot."
Curtis instructors try to break down psychological barriers that make it difficult for welfare recipients to get jobs. Instructors want to create a work-oriented personality that will enable recipients to stay employed.
Villares tells his Tuesday morning class about "the hidden job market," the fact that 80 percent of all jobs are not openly advertised. Villares says he found his job through a tip from a friend who works for Curtis.
How do you get in a network like that if your life is built around welfare and other welfare recipients?
That's easy, Villares says. The class itself and the whole Curtis operation is the network. A job that may not be to one person's liking may be another's golden opportunity. Openings are tacked up on a bulletin board in a corner of the classroom, and participants are told to come in the next day with two job leads.
There are a host of other, smaller job-search tips to impart. Shake hands with a firm grip and look the other person in the eye, Villares says. You're supposed to start work at 9 a.m.? Show up at 8:55, get your coffee, schmooze with your fellow workers and be ready to work exactly at 9.
Villares asks what words come to mind when participants think about "welfare" or "unemployment."
"Terrible ... depressed ... anger ... scared," come the replies.
And what about "job"?
"I'd be jumping for joy," shouts Patricia Otero.
"When you're working, everything is bright," said Bella Gomez. "Before, everything is darkness."
Pub Date: 7/13/97