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    Welfare imbroglio ensnares trainees

    By CURTIS KRUEGER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 1, 2001


    CLEARWATER -- Working mothers such as Delphia Trieu thought they had found a way to move off welfare and into the family-friendly world of telecommuting.

    She and eight others enrolled in a class on medical billing, a program financed through Pinellas County's welfare system.

    They not only learned about the latest software, but actually assembled their own computers, fitting together 10-gigabyte hard drives, 56K fax modems, cooling fans and other gizmos with their own hands.

    The best part: Upon graduation, each woman would take home the computer she had built.

    But now, with less than two weeks left in the course, the women have learned they won't keep the computers they assembled at Advantage Training Systems in Clearwater.

    The women and Advantage Training Systems are caught up in a bureaucratic tempest that has shaken Pinellas County's welfare and worker training programs. County officials say they are working to get more than $500,000 owed to training companies such as Advantage, day care centers and other organizations that were partners in the local welfare system.

    An official for Advantage says the company can't give away the computers unless it is paid.

    "After I built it personally, myself? It's a very, very bad letdown," said Trieu, 35, who was hoping to work at least partly from her Pinellas Park home, where she looks after her 8- and 12-year-old children.

    Lockheed Martin IMS, the company that oversaw the welfare system locally, announced plans in February to pull out of its local contract. The move came after county officials blasted the company for what they saw as disorganization, lackluster commitment and an inability to prove the company had helped find jobs for as many people as it claimed.

    Lockheed Martin had defended its record, but pulled out because of the county's "acrimonious attitude" and "utterly unreasonable" requests to change its contract.

    County officials say some of Lockheed's vendors were not paid during the time of this dispute. A county agency called Work-Net has now taken over the role of overseeing the finances of local welfare and worker training programs, but for technical reasons, needs formal approval from Lockheed Martin before paying the bills. About $600,000 is owed to about 100 vendors, including Advantage Training, covering the first quarter of this year.

    "I really hope that we can get this resolved because we really need to pay these poor people," said Bonnie Moore, interim executive director of Pinellas Work-Net.

    But Kathleen Dezio, Lockheed Martin IMS spokeswoman in Washington, said the company still awaits payment of about $1.5-million from the county, including money it has paid to vendors without being reimbursed.

    Gloria Campbell, president of Advantage Training Systems, said she is caught in the middle. She said Lockheed Martin owes her about $40,000. Giving away the computers -- which the students assembled with components she bought for wholesale prices -- would set her back even more.

    "I wish that I could afford to just say "take the computers.' Unfortunately, I'm a small-business person and I can't afford to do this."

    She said she had done her part to help the students by continuing their training class in spite of her company not getting paid.

    Meanwhile, the women are worried about what will come next. Janet Fooks, 54, said she was disturbed that the course was shortened by two weeks, because she felt she needed the extra study time. "I don't have enough confidence to go out" and apply for jobs at this point, said Fooks, who lived with her sister to save money during the time she was taking the course.

    Many of the women said they had scraped by while devoting themselves to the course; one said she couldn't buy anything at her child's school book fair and another couldn't afford the price of a school field trip.

    "The point is, we've sacrificed a lot," said Ronda Larkin, 37. But, she added ruefully, "I told my kids it's worth it."

    -- Times staff writer Curtis Krueger, who writes about social issues, can be reached at krueger@sptimes.com or by calling (727) 893-8232.

    Recent coverage

    Private sector, public needs (March 12, 2001)

    Welfare coordinator wants out (February 22, 2001)

    Slow start by welfare office is denounced (February 14, 2001)

    Welfare agency faces questions about data (February 13, 2001)

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