Irene Hernandez knows all too well what life is like for the estimated 3.8 million Los Angeles County adults who can barely read, write or speak English.
"I can't move up in my job," she said in Spanish. Although Hernandez, 28, of Los Angeles earned a high school diploma in her native Mexico, she has trouble helping her 7-year-old son with his schoolwork.
Her lack of English skills has kept her from moving smoothly through daily life here, she said. So, six months ago, she signed up for English classes offered by her employer, American Apparel in L.A.'s garment district.
And on Wednesday, she joined civic, business and education leaders as they released an extensive report on literacy problems in the Los Angeles area and mapped out a five-year plan to address them.
The study was launched in June 2003 by Mayor James K. Hahn and conducted by United Way with more than 100 private and public organizations participating. It produced some grim findings:
* Fifty-three percent of working-age Los Angeles County residents have trouble reading street signs or bus schedules, filling out job applications in English or understanding a utility bill. The national average is 48%, according to the 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey.
* Area literacy programs reach fewer than 600,000 adults, about 16% of the county's low-literacy population.
* Literacy programs lack coordination and most focus on general literacy, rather than skills needed to boost job prospects or strengthen the area's workforce.
* Adult literacy programs often have a dropout rate of 50% or higher, yet many do not try to figure out why so few students complete their studies.
* Los Angeles has the highest rate of so-called undereducated adults of any major U.S. metropolitan area. Low-literacy rates reached 65% on the Eastside and 84% in South Los Angeles. Long Beach, Pomona, Glendale and El Monte also have large numbers of residents with English literacy problems.
Educated immigrants who have not yet learned English, immigrants who are not literate in their native tongue and English-speaking high school dropouts contribute to the area's workforce literacy problems, according to the report released during a meeting at USC. They form an underclass of workers stuck in low-paying jobs, while employers cannot find enough workers to perform increasingly complex tasks.
"The high number of adults who can't get family-sustaining jobs makes it urgent for us to raise awareness of the problem, begin implementing the action plan and create a coordinated workforce literacy system that will ultimately improve the health of our economy," said Terri L. Clark of the Literacy Network of Greater Los Angeles. It operates the new effort, known as Literacy@Work: The L.A. Workforce Literacy Project.
Melanie Stephens of Centro Latino de Educacion Popular said her organization focuses on teaching the estimated 5% to 15% of Latino immigrants who cannot read or write in their native Spanish.
They go to traditional English as a second language classes "and they get frustrated and give up," she said. "We work on literacy in their own language first, to get them ready for English."
One area employer, Classic Party Rentals, came up with its own remedy after its first attempt to teach English to its largely Spanish-speaking workforce foundered.
Clayton Frech, general manager of Classic's Culver City office, said the firm previously offered English classes after work, when employees had already put in a long day. Workers were not paid for class time and had to buy textbooks and other materials. Few stuck with the program.
Two weeks ago, Frech said, the company rolled out a new program, which begins before work and pays employees for the time they are in class. An English-fluent employee well-versed in company policies and procedures assists the teacher.
"We have $45,000 to $50,000 invested in this program," Frech said. "Not all companies can afford to do that, which is why [the literacy project] is important. For us, having employees who can communicate with our clients and handle any situation that comes up while they are on a job site is an important issue of customer service."
Project organizers recommend developing and sharing practical models, such as the one at Classic. They have called for raising at least $20 million in private and public funds to support about 80 literacy projects at work sites and agencies within the first three years, with expansion later. A volunteer tutoring corps would be established, and literacy programs would be evaluated according to a common set of standards.
Hernandez, the garment worker, sees the after-work English classes her employer offers as the ticket to a better life -- and a promotion.
She said she has wanted to learn English ever since arriving in the U.S. six years ago but never had time to fit in classes with family and job responsibilities. With classes offered Monday through Friday at her job site, she is beginning to realize her goal.
"Now I do have the time," Hernandez said. "There are many jobs within this company that I would like to do, but I need English to do them. I feel like now I have a chance."