October 18, 2010

From Welfare to Work: For many Mainers, there's no free lunch

State and local programs help thousands but include some employment requirements.

By John Richardson jrichardson@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Aaron Geyer, the head of Portland's Workfare Program, holds an employment training session at the Portland welfare office last month.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

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Workfare provides on-the-job experience as recipients "work off" their assistance. In Portland, workfare recipients also have to look for jobs and attend employment workshops focusing on resume writing, interviewing skills and other things.

Portlanders who need city help and are not disabled might work as much as 40 hours a week, depending on how much aid they need. The aid is worked off at minimum wage.

Portland enrolled 557 people in the Workfare Program in the past year, almost three times the number of people enrolled before the recession.

The program requires managers and willing supervisors around the city. But finding work is not hard, especially with the people coming for help during the recession, said Aaron Geyer, senior human services counselor for the Portland Department of Health and Human Services.

"We're getting more and more skilled people," Geyer said. "It really helps people stay sharp for when work opens up."

Diane Karambizi said the experience has prepared her for a new life.

The 27-year-old left Rwanda for safety reasons and ended up in Portland about a year ago. She had a degree in economics but could not speak English.

"I came with nothing. I needed shelter," she said. She started workfare by doing laundry and cleaning, but quickly learned to speak English and now works four hours a day at the front desk of the city's refugee resettlement office.

"It helped me a lot to know how the (employment) system works here, to learn English and also of course to feel like I'm not taking advantage of the city," Karambizi said.

Now, she said, it is just a matter of time to find a good-paying job. "It feels good. Very soon I will be independent."

Conley, who recently got certified as a weatherization technician, also is sure he won't be "on the state" much longer.

As part of receiving General Assistance, he has to apply to at least four jobs each week, he said.

"I'll definitely get a job," he said. "It won't take me long."


Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:



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