WASHINGTON - Laura Askew got the call many on welfare wait for: She got the job. And not just any job, this one was at the White House.
"I was just overwhelmed," said the 29-year-old woman now working as a mail clerk in the Executive Office of the President. "I called my sister. I was just hollering on the phone."
Today, President Clinton travels to St. Louis to celebrate other companies that have picked up his challenge to move people from welfare to work. But even as private firms are pushed to do more, an advisory group is cautioning companies to set achievable goals.
Companies "should realistically assess" their ability to support and motivate people leaving welfare, said the guide developed by the Welfare to Work Partnership.
The partnership, formed to prod the private sector, is about as boosterish as they come. But in its first how-to guide, the rhetoric gives way to tough reality.
More than 750 companies have joined the partnership, each promising to hire at leas t one welfare recipient. But a year after Clinton signed the welfare law, they have no totals.
And an Associated Press survey in May of the nation's largest firms showed just a handful had welfare-to-work programs in place.
If that doesn't change by next May, the effort is in serious trouble, admits Eli Segal, a longtime Clinton supporter who heads the partnership.
The clock is ticking: With the economy enjoying its lowest unemployment in nearly a quarter-century, now is the best time to persuade businesses to hire someone off public assistance, Mr. Segal says.
"There's a real sense we've got to get this done quickly," Mr. Segal said.
Many companies - including some of the 250 who will be honored by Mr. Clinton - have promised to hire someone off welfare, but have no idea how to do it and end up frustrated.
The guide makes the case that hiring people off welfare is good for business - offering tax credits and new workers in a tight labor pool. And it argues that realistic, modest goals are likely to reap results. Among suggestions:
At the White House, that champion may be Ada Possey, acting director of the Office of Administration.
"I have always had an aversion to people being stereotyped," Ms. Possey said, explaining her interest in the program, which has hired six welfare recipients to work in the four-building complex that makes up the president's executive office. The White House isn't releasing their salaries, but Ms. Possey said they are in the $18,000-$20,000-a-year range.
Ms. Askew has turned into an outstanding employee, Ms. Possey said.
A single mom with a nearly 2-year-old son, Ms. Askew moved to the Virginia suburbs of Washington after being laid off for the fifth time in eight years from a plant in Raleigh, N.C.
She came to live with her sister but couldn't find a job and soon used up her $300 nest egg. For the first time in her life, she signed up for welfare.
That was nearly a year ago, and as she was completing an office skills class last May, she still couldn't find a job. With every interview, she said, "They need someone with a little more experience."
Then her job counselor told her about the White House opening.
Overall, the federal government has hired 410 people off welfare toward its goal of 10,000, a spokeswoman said.
Ms. Possey said things are going wonderfully at the White House, but she said there are no plans in place to go beyond the six hires on the job.
Her explanation was right in line with the partnership's advice: "We're going to sit with what we have and make sure everything's going right."