LONG BEACH — Carl Wells was excited about the prospect of matching eight refugees with eight factory jobs.
As coordinator of employment services for the Long Beach City College Refugee Assistance Program, one of his tasks is to help unemployed refugees find work.
So when a representative of Van de Kamp's, a frozen food manufacturer in Santa Fe Springs, called recently with $3.70-an-hour jobs on its production line, Wells was optimistic. It was a good opportunity, he thought, for a few Southeast Asian refugees--of which Long Beach has one of the largest populations in the state--to get off the welfare rolls.
'Pretended They Couldn't Speak English'
Yet nearly two weeks later, despite the fact that his office had located 14 eligible candidates, only two had been hired. The reason, according to Wells: Most of them, influenced by ignorance and fear, simply didn't want to work.
"We figured that a majority of them had the minimum English skills necessary to do the job," he said. "It's pretty obvious that they just pretended they couldn't speak English."
So the company had to look elsewhere for most of its recruits. And Wells' program--which has a contract with the county to find jobs for refugees--lost an opportunity to bolster the sagging job placement statistics it needs to stay in business.
The experience isn't at all unusual, says Wells. Of the estimated 50 refugees his office finds potential job offers for in an average three-month period, he said, 75% to 80% refuse the offers. And despite regulations requiring welfare recipients to be available for employment, Wells said, only a small percentage of those reported to the county for non-cooperation are ever actually kicked off welfare.
'We're Getting Kind of Burned Out'
"We're getting kind of burned out with the frustration," said Jim Martois, director of the LBCC project. "We can only do our part."
Added Ken Rose, director of another refugee job training and placement service run by the nearby Asian Pacific Family Outreach center: "We have made every effort to try different ways of getting individuals to go to work and have not been very successful."
Of the last 12 welfare cases referred to his program, Rose said, only one has been permanently placed in a job. Eight others flatly refused the jobs they were offered, and three more accepted jobs but quit on the first day.
"We have a performance-based contract," Rose said. "We only get what we earn and we only earn when people go to work and stay at work. In terms of that, it's been a disaster."
Lack of Education, Skills
To understand what's going on, state and county officials say, one must understand something of how the welfare system operates.
Traditionally, they say, most California welfare recipients--including refugees--have been removed from welfare rolls once they obtain full-time employment. For the state's growing population of displaced Southeast Asians, however, that presented a problem. Often lacking in basic education and language skills, many were unable to find jobs that paid much more than their welfare checks.
A state study last year estimated that 60% of the 291,000 Southeast Asian refugees then living in California were on welfare.
So about six months ago, the federal government initiated new pilot programs in California and a handful of other states especially tailored to meet the needs of the country's newly arrived refugee communities. Called Refugee Demonstration Projects, or RDPs, they require that refugees receiving welfare enroll in specially designated employment training programs during their first three years in the United States. And, with certain exceptions, they must be willing to accept jobs procured for them by refugee job placement services.
In exchange for their cooperation, the program allows the refugees to maintain medical coverage as well as total welfare benefits during those three years, which, added to the income from their jobs, equals the amount they would receive as ordinary welfare recipients. In California, that amount ranges from $498 per month for a family of one adult and one child, to $1,306 for a family of 10.
After three years, participants revert back to the traditional system under which they may not receive benefits while working more than 100 hours a month.
"The purpose (of the new program) is to let them work full time without facing the catastrophic decision of having their families go hungry," said Walter Barnes, chief of the state Office of Refugee Services, which is overseeing the project. "The whole idea is to let them enter the work force to see what it's like--to get training and experience."
But word hasn't yet filtered down to all of the refugees that the system for newcomers has changed. So, fearful of losing the medical and welfare benefits that sustain their families in exchange for low-income jobs that don't, many simply make themselves unavailable for work offered through the program.