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MOST WORKERS AT PIC WILL BE RETAINED BY NEW GROUP

Most employees at Erie County's premier job-training agency will be retained after the entity is dissolved on Saturday as part of a sweeping overhaul of federally-funded job-training programs, officials announced Thursday.

Coordinators who have been overseeing the phase-out of PIC and the creation of the Workforce Development Consortium said 102 of the agency's 114 employees have been offered positions with the new entity.

Officials said interviews are still being conducted and it is possible that some of the 12 remaining employees will also be offered jobs.

Colleen Cummings, the Buffalo director of employment and training, said by retaining most of the existing staff, coordinators are convinced there will be a "seamless transition" as PIC winds down operations and the WDC creates an expanded one-stop shop for job-training initiatives.

PIC's funding under the Job Training Partnership Act ended in June. A new Workforce Investment Board has been established to set policies and oversee job-training activities. Officials decided this spring to retain PIC staffers through September in order to prevent any service disruptions.

The overhaul represents a major shift in direction, with advocates claiming the federally-mandated changes will replace a hodgepodge of ineffective, duplicative federal programs with a more streamlined system.

Economically disadvantaged workers and other eligible individuals will receive individual training accounts, or vouchers, and will be able choose which training or education programs they believe would be most helpful.

"This has been an extremely difficult and complex period," said Cummings. "We're pleased that we'll be retaining about 90 percent of the staff and will be offering them fringe benefits that are
very similar to their existing benefits."

But one veteran PIC employee who recently learned that he was not being retained delivered a harsh critique of the methods used during the phaseout period. James F. Notaro, the agency's director of the Balance of County Office and the long-time secretary of the Erie County Liberal Party, said a dozen employees in his unit have been kept in the dark about everything from their job status to details involving stop-gap insurance coverage in the event of their termination.

"People's lives are on the line here," Notaro told the agency's board. "No one in my office knows if they have jobs."

The board received assurances Thursday that all employees will be able to extend insurance benefits under a federal law called COBRA that generally lets employees extend company-sponsored health insurance for up to 18 months.

Edward N. Marlette, chairman of the PIC board, praised employees for their efforts in working toward a smooth transition.

"I can't tell you the pressure that the staff has been under," said Marlette. "And as hard as we tried, we couldn't preserve all the jobs. It was very frustrating at times."

The new entity plans to open a new "one-stop shop" for job-training programs in the former M. Wile & Co. plant on Goodell street. But officials said Thursday that work is proceeding more slowly than anticipated and that the new center will not likely open until early next year.

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