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Last April, Darrin Burton lost his job. His employer, MCI/Worldcom, was laying off 17,000 workers because of an accounting scandal, and Burton, a network engineer, was one of the last to go. He hated not working: He had to support two kids, who lived with their mothers in Maryland and West Virginia. But he wasn’t overly worried. He’d find another job fairly quickly, he figured, and his unemployment benefits would get him through the rough patches.

The unemployment program in the District is run by the Department of Employment Services (DOES), and the easiest way to register is at one of the city’s One-Stop Career Centers. Burton went to the One-Stop on Naylor Road SE, just down the street from his apartment, to fill out the necessary paperwork. While there, he noticed a flier for a program called MetroTech. The deal it offered was pretty sweet: If you were willing to go through a few months of training, the flier stated, you would be given a well-paying, full-time job. Guaranteed.

Burton was an ideal candidate for the program, which specialized in technology jobs, and he was quickly accepted. The people at DOES told him to go home and await word as to when he would start.

For the next two months, Burton says, he spent his days helping a friend start a small business. He wasn’t too concerned about finding work: He was able to pay the bills, thanks to his benefits, and he trusted the assurance of DOES that he’d soon be earning a paycheck.

Still, Burton was anxious for the program to begin. He called DOES to check his status. After a few unsuccessful attempts to reach someone, Burton spoke to Kathy Henderson, a MetroTech specialist. Henderson had never heard of Burton, and said there was no record that he’d ever applied to the program. Burton would just have to resubmit his paperwork, she said. Then she’d see if she could find something for him.

Burton quickly complied. Again, he heard nothing for months. He began to worry that his benefits would run out before the program began. Henderson repeatedly assured Burton that he’d be in training soon, and that she just needed some more time. As the weeks dragged on, Burton called her more and more regularly.

“It seemed like she just expected me to go away,” says Burton. “She seemed surprised that I kept calling, that I didn’t just throw up my hands and give up.” (Henderson did not respond to repeated calls for comment.)

Finally, in September—five months after he’d enrolled in the program—Henderson told Burton that she’d found something for him. The training was scheduled to begin in October and be finished by January, at which time Burton would be offered a job with a company called Celient Technologies. Burton didn’t know anything about Celient, but he was willing to take his chances. His unemployment benefits, after all, would be running out in a few months.

As Burton’s training program drew to a close, he asked Henderson to provide him with an official offer letter. She told him not to worry, and she stressed that he should not contact his future employer directly.

On Jan. 13, Henderson sent Burton an e-mail. “I have an unofficial start date of 1-15-03,” she wrote. “I encourage you to be patient a little longer.”

On the unofficial start date, Jan. 15, she e-mailed again. “I fully expect to have firm start dates and salary information for each participant no later than 1-30-03,” said the message. Henderson tried to assuage the fears of Burton and the other students from his MetroTech class. “Rest assured,” she wrote, “that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”

The e-mail Henderson sent on Feb. 5, however, did not contain good news. “Celient Technologies has not honored their written commitment to hire each of you,” she wrote. Henderson told the students that she would try to make other arrangements, but admonished them for putting too much faith in the program. “Metro Tech is not an entitlement program,” she wrote, “and you are encouraged to continue your job search while enrolled in the program.”

That was news to Burton, whose unemployment benefits had just run out. Henderson did arrange for Burton and some of the other students to interview for jobs as cable technicians with Celient and another company, Silver Bullet. The interviews, however, were a waste of time: The jobs would have required that Burton purchase his own truck and tools before he began working.

“I can’t even afford to pay my rent, and they want me to buy a truck?” he says. “I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know where my next meal was coming from, or if I was going to be put out on the street. And they want me to buy a truck.”

Burton is one of the District’s roughly 23,000 unemployed residents. Ever since the economic slump hit the District in 2000, the ranks of the jobless have swelled from 5.7 percent to 7.2 percent, eclipsing the national rate of 6.4 percent. DOES, a $100 million department established in 1976, is charged with steering out-of-work citizens such as Burton to promising jobs and industries.

In Burton’s case, DOES did just the opposite. The department’s unfulfilled commitments have left a now-desperate Burton without a source of income.

“I just wish I could do everything over again,” says Burton, whose is presently trying to fend off eviction for the second time. “If I hadn’t dealt with DOES, I would have found a job. I would have got something.”

DOES Director Gregory Irish concedes botching the MetroTech initiative. “We blew it with that project,” he says.

Irish insists, however, that District taxpayers are getting a bargain for the $100 million that DOES is spending this year. The agency has found jobs for more than 10,000 District residents since 2000. And even though DOES is taking heat from its overseers on the D.C. Council, the agency is caught between two tough constituencies: (1) local employers, which are suffering through a protracted economic slump, and (2) the unemployed, who have a few quirks of their own.

At the Project Empowerment One-Stop on H Street NE, a “life skills” class has gotten under way. A group of mostly young, black, female welfare recipients are in their third day of the class, which covers interviewing skills, work ethic, goal setting, conflict resolution, résumé writing, and anger management. When Irish enters the room and introduces himself, the students start clapping.

“How’s everybody doing?” he asks, smiling. Irish, who is wearing a black suit, has a sizable frame and big, broad shoulders. He paces the room as the students look up at him. “We’re depending on you to go out and get those jobs,” he says, his voice rising. The students cheer. He asks what they think of the program.

“Oh, this is one of the best around,” says one woman, her hair dyed pink. “It’s the best,” she says. Irish looks at her. She repeats herself, her voice firm with conviction.

Another woman asks for Irish’s card, in case she has any problems, and the rest of the class follows suit. He leaves a card at the front of the room and says his goodbyes. The students give him another ovation, louder this time, and turn back to their life skills. During the four-week course, the students will engage in such activities as making a 30-second commercial about themselves and role-playing in front of their classmates. Later in the day, one of the students sees me looking down into a reporter’s notebook as he spoke with Irish. “Keep your head up,” the student admonished. It was a tip she had picked up in class.

Irish is an affable, confident man who was hired by the now-defunct D.C. financial control board in 1998, after a successful stint running an employment agency in California. He played a significant role in designing the city’s nine One-Stops, which reflect his disposition: The walls are decorated with inspirational posters, a motivational speaker broadcasts uplifting messages from a TV screen, and many of the walls in the newer centers are made of glass, which gives the One-Stops a welcoming, open-air feeling.

“I want people to have confidence in their environment,” says Irish. “Before I came, we looked like an agency that didn’t care about our customers.” Prior to his arrival, Irish maintains, DOES facilities were dreary, rat-infested, and run-down. “People shouldn’t be treated like they’re subhuman just because they’re poor,” he says.

The image Irish presents of DOES is very different from the one experienced by Burton. But Irish argues that a few bad experiences say nothing about the overall quality of his organization.

“The One-Stops see 7,000 people per month,” says Irish. “If 10 or 12 customers have a problem, it’s unfortunate, but I think we can still say that on the whole our performance is pretty good.”

Representatives from foreign governments, as well as labor leaders and other state employment agency heads, have toured the District’s One-Stops, which offer the unemployed benefits, job counseling, the use of telephones and computers, workshops, a resource library, and an on-line job bank. Irish points to the rows of awards and commendations that line his office: the Theodore E. Small Workforce Partnership Award, the Pyramid Prize for Collaboration for Improved Customer Service, and the William E. Harris Equal Opportunity Award, to name a few.

“Our peers believe we’re a stellar institution,” Irish says, holding an award up. “It’s too bad our family doesn’t.”

The “family” Irish is referring to is the D.C. Council, specifically Councilmember David Catania, who alleges that Irish’s rosy depiction of DOES is a sham. Catania has hammered Irish’s organization in council hearings over the past few months, alleging that it is engaged in wasteful spending, operates without necessary oversight, and helps far fewer District residents than its numbers suggest.

“I have next to no confidence in Gregg Irish as director of DOES,” says Catania. “The organization is simply a mess. We don’t know what we’re getting for our dollar. Everywhere you look, there is a distressing lack of accountability.” Catania dismisses the awards that Irish presents as evidence of his success. “I don’t know why his peers would be rewarding the mediocrity I’ve seen,” says Catania. “I work on the D.C. Council—I’ve seen firsthand how easily you can rack up a lot of these letters and commendations. It doesn’t change the fact that the agency is the epitome of mediocrity.”

Catania has spent a lot of time haranguing DOES about the little things he says are emblematic of the department’s problems. It pays too much for office supplies, he says—does it really need 100 electric pencil sharpeners and 200 wastebaskets per year?—and he alleges that it spends excessive amounts on security, communications, and its fleet of automobiles. Paying $62,000 for 137 ergonomic chairs, it seems, is not the quickest way to the councilmember’s heart.

DOES officers, for their part, have become frustrated with Catania’s attacking them over what they see as petty concerns. Catania’s staff, in turn, complains about how difficult it is to get a clear view of the organization’s finances.

“I look at these numbers closer than anyone in this government, and, frankly, it’s exasperating,” says Catania.

The local press has never treated D.C. agencies equally. In recent years, the Metropolitan Police Department and various social-service agencies have hogged most of the headlines.

DOES, however, has operated in relative obscurity—even though Mayor Anthony A. Williams has repeatedly stressed the importance of job creation. The media has shown little interest in the department, and its clients—the unemployed poor—have little in the way of political capital. Because the vast majority of the city’s well-connected residents have never been into a One-Stop, grievances about service rarely reach the ears of those in high places.

“The One-Stop system serves low-income folks; most of the people who use it have scarce resources,” says Jennifer Bowles of the Employment Justice Center (EJC), an advocacy group critical of DOES. “They take a psychological beating when they come through the One-Stop door, and these are people who are vulnerable to begin with.”

In 2001, the D.C. Jobs Council, a coalition of job-training providers, advocates for the poor, and social-service agencies, released a report that tracked 43 people who had used One-Stops for four months. The report found that many job seekers had trouble obtaining basic information about their employment options. It also claimed that they were treated badly by DOES staff—scheduled appointments, for example, were often ignored by case managers—and noted that two Spanish-speakers were told that they could not use the center’s services.

Of the 43 participants in the study, none found work by using the centers. In early 2002, the EJC took up the cases of more than a dozen clients in need of One-Stop services. Even with the help of EJC attorneys, only two were able to get job training, and, for one of the job seekers, it took 10 months to do so. The group released a paper last November complaining that not much had changed since the D.C. Jobs Council report was made public.

There have been some improvements, however. Early this month, Tony Dominguez, who is bilingual, accompanied a friend who did not speak English to the One-Stop on Franklin Street NE. He found that his services were not needed.

“In the past, maybe two years ago, it wasn’t like this at all,” said Dominguez, looking over at his friend, who was in conversation with a Spanish-speaking DOES employee. “If you didn’t speak English, they wouldn’t help you. Now they do.”

But many are still frustrated by One-Stop service. Albrette “Gigi” Ransom, a former professional basketball player and ANC commissioner, went to the Franklin Street One-Stop after she was laid off in October 2001. An employee told her that she needed to take a test that would evaluate her skills; afterward, the employee said, Ransom’s paperwork would be processed and she would be able to begin job training. She took the test, but it took her three months to get the results, despite regular visits to the One-Stop. Once Ransom did get the test back, she tried to set up an appointment with her case manager, who offered to see her in two-and-a-half weeks. Ransom insisted that she come in sooner, because after the long wait for the test results, she had begun to worry about her benefits running out. Her case manager hung up on her.

“They speak of empowering the worker, but it’s such a bureaucratic system,” says Ransom. “The case managers are overwhelmed. Mine didn’t have voice mail, and they wouldn’t give me an e-mail address. The phone just rings when you call. You have to make an appointment to get a simple question answered, and that takes weeks. You find yourself unable to move forward. It’s extremely frustrating.” Ransom would later research a number of training programs provided as options by DOES, only to find out that the one she chose was no longer certified.

There are approximately 25 staffers in each full-service One-Stop center, and they see roughly 2,500 to 3,000 customers per month. In July 2003, DOES estimated that each case manager dealt with an average of 124 clients.

Irish says that using anecdotal evidence to condemn his organization is tantamount to “voodoo.” He motions towards a pile of binders that contain hundreds of laudatory e-mails that DOES has collected over the past few years from clients and businesses.

“Ninety-nine percent of the staff is good, hardworking people,” he says.

Irish clearly has faith in his staff: DOES recently went through a two-year period in which not one employee was fired.

“I find that incredible,” says Catania. “It seems mind-blowing that in two years, not a single person was removed from their position.” Perhaps DOES doesn’t want to expand the ranks of its needy clients.

Part of the explanation, however, may be that job seekers are frightened of criticizing DOES employees, who are often the only link between them and employment. When Burton decided to go public with his story, he sent out e-mails imploring his classmates to join him. Like Burton, he says, they had been promised jobs that never materialized.

Most decided against going public, however. After only three of Burton’s classmates came to a February council hearing on DOES shortcomings, Burton sent an e-mail chastising the rest of the group. He wrote that some of them had a “cheese eatin…#footshufflin…uncle tom yessa boss mentality,” and he’s still angry that many of his peers refused to stand with him.

“It’s sad,” he says. “I never was scared. I never understand why people sat back like that. They’re so used to things not working for them. Even the ones that come in and argue—after they’re done making noise, they just leave. Nothing ever changes.”

According to Bowles, the fact that case managers have discretion in deciding whether or not a customer will receive job training means that it is almost impossible for a client to demand better service.

Shonta Jones, who went through training with Burton, was about to have a baby as the MetroTech class was coming to an end in January. When Celient offered her a job laying cable, she wondered why they had even bothered: Her pregnancy made it impossible for her to work on her feet, and she had nowhere near enough money to invest in the truck and tools necessary for the job. Jones was given another chance, however: The Silver Bullet Company offered her a job as a dispatcher, at $10 per hour. She turned it down, saying that she would wait for something in her field.

“I was a computer technician for two years with [the D.C. public schools],” says Jones, who graduated from Eastern High School in 1998. “I need a career. Something where I can get in the door and stay with it. They were offering us jobs that kids coming out of high school would take.”

As DOES would be quick to point out, however, they were, at least, offering jobs. One of the primary problems the agency faces is that D.C. has very little to offer job seekers who want careers but lack the skills most in demand.

“There’s not a lot of industry here,” says John Catlett, president of the Local 639 Teamsters union. “You’re either in a white-collar skill job or in a service-industry job. There’s not too much blue-collar work.”

Irish says that given those realities, the department does an excellent job with the resources at its disposal.

“All I can say is that it seems as if the sky is always falling in D.C. with everything,” he says. “There are some things wrong…but the sky’s not falling.” He argues that there is ample evidence supporting his claim that DOES is performing well. “The numbers,” he says. “Look at the numbers.”

Indeed, the numbers are good: Since Irish has taken over, DOES has largely surpassed its performance goals as outlined on the mayor’s scorecard. In each of the past two fiscal years, the department claims to have provided year-round training or employment to 1,000 youths, placed 3,500 District residents in unsubsidized private sector jobs, and employed 500 welfare-to-work participants in subsidized jobs or transitional employment. DOES performance standards are tougher than those found in many states.

Catania, however, says those figures are largely meaningless.

“They’re completely unaudited,” he says. “They select who goes into the numbers, so there’s no way to confirm their accuracy.” He points to a DOES customer-service survey that was filled out by just 25 people between July 2001 through July 2002.

According to figures based on those completed surveys, 70 percent of job seekers were satisfied with DOES performance, a percentage that meets Department of Labor requirements. But, Catania says, as a measure of a system that sees thousands of people each month, 25 respondents have little value. He is skeptical of DOES’ assurances that the performance-measure numbers reflect the agency’s performance.

Darryl Hardy, the department’s acting director for work-force development, counters that it is impossible for DOES to make itself look better on paper than it is in reality. “We don’t control those numbers,” he says, explaining that the raw data is based on a match between Social Security numbers and information sent in by an employer. “No person—me, the folks at the One-Stops, anywhere—is able to manipulate that data.”

Such assurances have not convinced critics of DOES in the Wilson Building.

“The conventional wisdom is that they play a numbers game,” says one well-connected former government official.

Still, the case against the agency rests to a large degree on anecdotage. Sandra Harrell, who worked for the D.C. Department of Corrections for 13 years, signed up for a DOES training program in June 1999. Harrell and her classmates were told that they would be placed in a two-year paid internship with PEPCO upon completion of their training in Microsoft Networking. That turned out to be untrue: By the time she had finished her training, which was extended to run through January 2001, the internship had disappeared. Harrell was eventually referred to training for other jobs—including one related to fixing stoplights—but she was never offered a position.

“This was supposed to be set up for me, the client,” says Harrell. “They way I was treated, the way that place is being run—I have a lot of doubts. I jumped through all their hoops, and I went through that training program, and now their statistics look good. But I still don’t have a job. I just feel as though I’ve been used.”

Harrell’s initial training program, which was administered by a company called D.C. Link and Learn, was plagued with problems. She estimates that about half the time, the students were unable to do their in-class training because of a malfunctioning computer system. The students complained, but the problems were never fixed. D.C. Link and Learn President Archie Prioleau disputes Harrell’s account.

DOES spent an average of $4,610 last year for an adult to be trained by a vendor. (It trained 1,342 adults in total.) Sometimes it splurges. The agency recently spent at least $22,000 to provide cosmetology training for three lucky job seekers at the French Institute. The students received instruction in hair, skin, and nails, with the opportunity for further training in electrolysis and body waxing. All three are now employed.

DOES says it does not actively review the vendors because federal law mandates that the department give job seekers every possible option in selecting a training provider. That means out-of-state vendors compete directly with those in the District, and that job seekers are theoretically not steered towards a particular vendor. Forty-four percent of vendors approved by DOES between July 2001 and June 2002 were headquartered outside of D.C. It is less common for Maryland or Virginia to spend employment-services funds on providers inside the District.

Maryland and Virginia have also benefited from DOES practices in other ways: Of the 10,733 people DOES found jobs for between July 2001 and June 2002, just 2,307—21 percent—were D.C. residents.

As DOES has discovered, jobless folk can be maddeningly finicky. Early this year, for example, DOES publicized an apprenticeship opportunity with the Local 602 Steamfitters Union, one that would likely lead participants to full employment in the field. The program drew 106 applicants who met the basic requirements. Fifty-three of them, however, did not complete the application process, which consisted of such fairly routine tasks as bringing in a birth certificate and a high-school transcript.

Another 42 failed a test of their basic math skills. Ultimately, just 11 students entered the program. “That was disappointing,” says Lewis Brown, director of the DOES apprenticeship office. In another instance, only 10 of 70 individuals who had registered to take a free test that would help them get into an apprenticeship program with the Local 26 Electricians Union bothered to show up.

“One of the biggest complaints I hear is, ‘Nobody gave me a job,’” says Irish. He points out that the department’s mandate is to provide employers with skilled workers, not find jobs for apathetic, insufficiently skilled, or unwilling candidates.

Lowering expectations, however, hasn’t neutralized the agency’s critics.

“It’s one of the agencies that has a critical role to play in the District of Columbia,” says Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson, whose committee used to oversee DOES. “And it hasn’t even come close to living up to its mandate.”

DOES has, however, done certain things very well: It partnered with CVS to build a “mock store” within one of its One-Stops, which led to 1,287 new hires last year, and its pre-apprenticeship programs have helped some otherwise unemployable District residents find jobs. It has also made improvements that have helped the city’s residents in less obvious ways. Students in the summer jobs program, for example, used to have trouble getting their checks, and those who did get checks would often get robbed when they went to cash them. DOES introduced a system through which students were paid by debit card, cutting down on such problems—and keeping students out of liquor stores, where they often went to cash their paychecks.

And for all its shortcomings, the department has improved since Irish has come aboard. “DOES is the best it has been in 20 years,” says Josh Williams, president of the Metropolitan Washington Council AFL/CIO. “It’s not where it should be—there’s no question about that—but it’s a lot better than it once was.”

Still, DOES has been plagued by an employee and management culture that makes outsiders feel as though the department is more like a family business than a meritocracy. According to Albrette Ransom, as well as many other job seekers contacted for this article, “you get the feeling that you have to be connected in order to get some services.” As a result, the unemployed often feel even more frustrated after leaving a One-Stop than they did when they arrived.

And the specter of retribution haunts those who complain about the service they receive. After DOES officials became aware that Burton had been talking to the press, he received a phone call from a DOES official to discuss a potential job. Burton says the official knew that he had been out to dinner the night before with me, and that he seemed irritated. “Did you enjoy dinner?” the man asked sarcastically, according to Burton. He says the official later warned him to “be careful and know who you’re talking to.” This was stated, Burton says, in a way that made it clear that the official did not look kindly on his decision to speak out.

The official denies that he attempted to intimidate Burton.

Catania believes that the department’s management is disconnected from the reality that faces the District’s unemployed poor. “It’s like they live in etherized chambers,” he says. “They can’t see the lack of job opportunities in the city. What do they have to show for $100 million? Not much that I can see.”

“I’m proud of what we’ve done,” says Irish. “This is a passion of mine. My friends told me not to take this job—they said that DOES is in such bad shape. I moved here when my son was just a week old, because I wanted to be part of the community. I mean, I live and breathe this stuff. I came here to make a difference.”

Catania and Irish, who will likely never have to use a One-Stop, will surely continue to debate the merits of DOES. That’s of little consolation to Burton, who is still desperate to find a way to pay his bills.

“I’m not going to make it through this month if I don’t find a job,” he says, lamenting his experience with DOES. “You just get the feeling that they don’t care if you sink or swim.” CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.