WASHINGTON -- As the economy booms and welfare changes take hold, most of the nation's large companies have no program in place to hire people off the rolls, and many of the existing programs are quite modest, an Associated Press survey finds.
Still, three times as many firms have programs today than a year ago, when the AP conducted a similar survey.
"The myths have been shattered and the stereotypes have been proven wrong," said Leah Soupata, senior vice president for human resources at United Parcel Service, which hired nearly 8,300 former welfare recipients last year.
But UPS is not typical.
Of the nation's 100 largest companies, 34 say they have welfare-to-work programs. Thirteen say they are planning programs. The rest -- 53 -- have no plans, according to AP interviews with each company.
The interest is up from last year, when just eight companies had programs and 16 were considering them.
"A year ago we were just an idea. In fact there was some skepticism this idea was going to translate into reality," said Eli Segal, president of the Welfare to Work Partnership, inspired by President Clinton to prod the private sector into hiring recipients. It now has 5,000 member companies, each committed to hiring at least one person.
A partnership survey shows that in the last year, 135,000 welfare recipients have been hired by U.S. companies, many of them small companies. Seventy percent have health benefits and 70 percent are full-time. About 3.6 million adults were on welfare as of last September, down from nearly 5 million at the time Clinton took office, according to government figures.
On Wednesday, Clinton will celebrate the partnership's first anniversary, emphasizing the importance of not just hiring people but keeping them on the job.
Since last year, the president has regularly called on the private sector to hire those on welfare.
While the welfare rolls have dropped across the country, no one knows for sure where people have landed. Many fear the fate of the poor when economic times turn bad.
Corporate hiring offers the hope that people will find good jobs during good times -- learning skills and developing good habits -- and fare better if the economy turns sour.
But the AP survey found even many companies with programs have started slowly.
Take Loews, which plans to open a 800-room hotel on Miami Beach this summer. The company hopes to hire 600 or 700 people, including 25 off the welfare rolls.
"No one employer can absorb too many people with special needs," said Alan Moneyer, vice president of human resources. "What employers don't want and aren't good at is when they become social workers."
Loews is working to organize other hotels to hire welfare recipients, too. And, Moneyer said, the company's New York headquarters hired eight people off welfare, and seven of them -- "some terrific employees" -- are still on board.
Still, he says, he wouldn't want to hire more than 25 employees at the new hotel, and he isn't ready to launch programs at other sites.
"We want to make a commitment in this area, but we want it to be in balance," he said.
That approach is not unusual. Pacific Gas and Electric hired 25 in San Francisco. Electronic Data Systems took on 18 in Detroit. In Seattle, Boeing hired 32 -- seven more than its target.
Other companies hired more: Xerox, 171 in 1997 and 1998; Sprint, 130 over the past year.
And some companies have very large programs. United Airlines hired 760 during the program's first year and plans to hire 2,000 by the end of 2000.
And UPS says it's always looking for part-time package handlers to work overnight shifts.
"We always need people," Soupata said.
People like Susan Miller. After four years on welfare, she began working nights two years ago and is now a day-side manager. Like all employees, she gets full health care benefits, though she is still part time.
It's hard work, she says, but now she can set an example for her children.
"I just couldn't imagine myself sitting around not able to do anything, my kids saying, `Mommy doesn't do anything all day,"' Miller said.
But the typical company is more like Winn-Dixie, the Florida-based grocery store chain.
"We'd be glad to accept applications from everybody," said spokesman Mickey Clerc. "Rather than us go out and participate in all the different programs, we just say come fill out an application."
The AP survey, based on telephone interviews with every company, also found:
-- Large companies are slightly more likely to participate in welfare hiring programs. Of the nation's 50 largest employers -- some not among the 100 largest companies -- 22 have programs and six plan them.
-- Many firms without programs say they need high-tech expertise not found in the typical welfare recipient. "Even at gas stations, we recruit college graduates," said Gail Campbell Woolley, spokeswoman for Mobil.
-- Last year, 16 companies told the AP they planned programs. Half of them have programs today. Five have nothing. Three still plan them.
-- Most companies rely on third parties to prepare welfare recipients for work. Programs range from two-week job readiness classes to longer training for specific skills.
Travelers has hired more than 50 women through the Wildcat program in New York City.
"Two or three years ago they called and said, `Can you take one?"' said Michael Schlein of Travelers, which now plans to hire 65 people a year. "They now know what we look for."
-- Several companies join with government agencies to solve problems that welfare recipients often face.
The Limited helped a county pay for a new bus terminal near its suburban Columbus, Ohio, headquarters and is considering a day care center there.
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