Successfully revised welfare-to-work program set to expand

"It gave me loads of self-confidence and still helps me today," says graduate.

working mom 88 (photo credit: )
working mom 88
(photo credit: )
It's a Tuesday morning at the Jerusalem office of the Lights to Employment program - the repackaged welfare-to-work initiative that is most commonly known as the Wisconsin Plan - and a cluster of Arab women in traditional head dresses wait patiently to meet with their employment counselors or start one of the mandatory courses offered here. In another area, one floor below, young men and women wait eagerly to begin their induction and start out on the road to employment. It's a mellow scene at the center - a stark contrast to my last visit just over a year ago. Back then I was greeted by lots of shouting, complaints and some very unhappy faces. The Jerusalem branch is run by Amin, a partnership between private Israeli company Aman and British multi-national A4E. "It has definitely become more mellow here," observes Amin Center director Aliza Raz, who took over the position not long after my previous visit, as she shows me around. Last July, Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Eli Yishai approved critical changes to the Wisconsin Plan (Mehalev in Hebrew), which had been dogged by controversy, complaints and criticism since its launch as a pilot in four locations (Jerusalem, Hadera, Nazareth and Ashkelon) two years earlier. In renaming it "Lights to Employment," Yishai announced that "the participants are customers of the government and should not be treated as enemies of the state [as had been the case with the original Wisconsin Plan]." Among the core changes pushed through by Yishai were that the private companies running the pilot program would no longer receive bonuses for getting people off state welfare. Instead, they would be compensated only when participants retained serious, long-term employment. In addition, people over 45 were allowed to leave the program and those with special needs, such as the disabled, new immigrants and the chronically unemployed, would be redirected to individual tracks. "The main change is in how the bonuses are received by the companies," says A4E's Israeli CEO Eli Ben-Eliezer, who joined the Jerusalem operation less than a year ago. "Now there is an effort to make sure that people are put in high-quality work placements where they can stay for a long period. The longer they are there, the more bonuses we get." Sari Revkin, executive director of Yedid, the association for community empowerment, which has been acting as a watchdog for the program since its inception, agrees. "The most significant [of Yishai's] changes has been the reforming of the business/economic agreement between the government and the companies," she says. "We have noted a drop of about 70 percent to 80% in the number of complaints from participants since Yishai's new program started." According to figures published last week by the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry, between July and November 2007, Lights to Employment placed 1,405 people in permanent jobs. And in light of the positive trend, the ministry has already announced that it is ready to expand the program from close to 5,000 participants to nearly 10,000. Revkin says, however, that there are still some problems with the new format, such as the limited range of vocational courses offered to participants and the fact that 45-year-olds who opt out lose some of their benefits. Still, she says the program is moving in the right direction and will eventually become the central scheme to help the country's unemployed rejoin the work force. One Jerusalem participant, Iris Mesusani, a 41-year-old divorcee and mother of two, says that the program has helped her turn her life around. "I don't know how I got through it," she says of her life before joining the program in its previous format a year-and-a-half ago. "It was a very difficult time. I was always worried about how I would be able to feed my children or keep my house. I had to do everything on my own." Mesusani, whose messy divorce 12 years ago left her without child support or any other means of income except for state handouts, spent years working as a cleaning woman and moving from one place of employment to another. "I wanted to be part of this program," she says. "From the beginning I had a great relationship with my employment counselor and he sent me on a two-month management and marketing course. It gave me loads of self-confidence and still helps me today." Less than six months later, Mesusani, who also received assistance with her resume and tips for job interviews, landed a temporary position as a cashier at a Blue Square-run supermarket. "At first I thought I would never be able to do such a job," she recalls. "I did not have any experience and was scared to work with computers. It was very stressful but here [at Amin] they encouraged me to try it and I did." Last summer Mesusani was offered a permanent position at the supermarket and has since been named employee of the month. And even though her salary doesn't always stretch far enough to cover all of her expenses, Mesusani says she is content. "When people start working, some of the discounts they are used to from being on benefits are taken away," explains Raz. "Even though they are now earning they still fall short. Our aim is to bring people to a point where they can stand on their own two feet and that is why we continue to provide guidance sessions even after they've received a successful placement." The center also provides former participants with case-by-case financial assistance until they are self-sufficient, adds Raz. For Mesusani, however, the ongoing financial struggle is inconsequential. "I definitely got more help [from the state] in the past," she says. "But I still prefer the situation that I am in today. To be able to go out of my house and meet new people has done wonders for my self-image, and my children are so proud of me now that I am no longer a cleaner."