MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And with the U.S. unemployment rate at nearly 10 percent, states are experimenting with ways to get people back to work. One program called Georgia Works lets workers keep their unemployment benefits while they go through on the job training. State leaders say it's an innovative way to get people back into the job market, but critics say employers are getting help for free.
NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.
KATHY LOHR: There are 15 million unemployed workers in the U.S., and up until January, Melissa Brown was one of them. Brown had worked as a clerk for an international shipping company, but was laid off in 2008. She wanted to use her accounting degree, but had little luck because there were so few jobs. When she did get an interview, prospective employers gave her the same response.
Ms. MELISSA BROWN: I showed, you know, gave them my resume and they said, well, you don't have any experience in accounting. I could do the work, but I didn't have any experience.
LOHR: Brown joined Georgia Works, which pairs employers and employees. The program offers part time training for up to six weeks. Employees learn a new skill and continue to get paid their weekly unemployment benefits plus a stipend to offset travel and child care costs.
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LOHR: Brown got the training and ultimately landed a job at National Tax Negotiators in Fayetteville, Georgia as a full-time accountant. She adds up piles of receipts for a client as she prepares his taxes.
Ms. BROWN: Now, sometimes these are old receipts so I have to look and see if I can read the numbers.
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LOHR: Joyce Travis owns the business. She says she hired workers in the past and paid to train them, but it didn't work out. Without the program, Travis says, she might not have been able to afford to hire another employee.
Ms. JOYCE TRAVIS (Business Owner): Six weeks may not seem like a lot of money, but it is a lot of money if you put your time into training that person, and you paid them good and then they don't work out. It really cuts into your budget.
LOHR: In Georgia, the unemployment rate is above the national average at 10.6 percent. The region is just beginning to see signs of recovery, but state officials say they have to be more innovative if they're going to get people back to work. The Georgia Works program began back in 2003, and the state has recently been running radio ads to attract more interest in it.
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Unidentified Man: We've been through some tough times before, but nothing compares to what we're facing now. To be honest with you, I never had much faith in government programs. But the Georgia Department of Labor has a great new initiative called Georgia Works.
LOHR: So far almost 8,400 employers have signed up, and about 7,800 workers have participated in training. Businesses are not required to hire workers, and those who don't get jobs will continue to receive their unemployment checks. But nearly half of the trainees - more than 3,700 people - now have jobs.
Georgia labor commissioner Michael Thurmond calls that a success.
Mr. MICHAEL THURMOND (Labor Commissioner, Georgia): The average length or duration of unemployment in Georgia is now at about 15 weeks. So when a person is hired within six weeks, then you've saved nine weeks of unemployment insurance benefits. And that has generated some $6 million in savings for our Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund.
LOHR: But there are critics. One worker's rights group says Georgia Works violates federal labor laws because employers are getting work without having to pay for it.
Maurice Emsellem is with the National Employment Law Project.
Mr. MAURICE EMSELLEM (National Employment Law Project): They want to call it training, which is exempt from the minimum wage, but only under very strict circumstances. And that requires that the person is receiving 100 percent training and the employer is deriving no benefit from the program. And clearly that's not the situation with Georgia Works.
LOHR: Emsellem says employers should pay at least minimum wage, and he says state and federal officials should monitor the program to make sure companies are not taking advantage of workers. But Georgia Labor Commissioner Thurmond says the criticism is unfounded and the training legal. He says the voluntary program gives workers new skills to add to their resume and creates jobs that would not exist.
Mr. THURMOND: This stimulates hiring and reduces the cost of training. It addresses the major issue facing private sector employers today.
LOHR: The U.S. Department of Labor recently issued 10 pages of legal guidelines outlining what is allowed in worker training programs. But officials declined to be interviewed for this story.
Other states are setting up incentives for employers - including paying companies subsidies if they hire workers who are now receiving unemployment checks. Mark Zandi is an economist with Moody's Analytics. He says these are exactly the kind of strategies states should be trying.
Mr. MARK ZANDI (Chief Economist, Moody's Analytics): I think in normal times, I don't think anyone would be thinking down these lines. But these aren't normal times, and we've got a big problem, and we need to figure out ways - creative ways to solve it. And Georgia Works is a shot at it.
LOHR: Back in Fayetteville, Georgia, Melissa Brown is now employed after being out of work for more than a year. And she's clearly beaming about her new job.
Ms. BROWN: I'm actually doing something that I want to do. And I don't mind getting up in the morning, coming, staying late. I love my job.
LOHR: The Georgia labor commissioner says he'd like to expand the program in this state and across the country. More than 20 states have contacted Georgia to get more information. And New Hampshire began a similar initiative just last month.
Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.
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