Herriman • Javier Mendez married Marquita Luker on Aug. 18, so it was not a good time for him to be out of work.
But he was, laid off a couple of months earlier from a gritty job removing asbestos from older buildings.
So the 32-year-old Taylorsville man was eager to take advantage of a new Utah Department of Workforce Services program that offers companies an incentive worth up to $2,000 to hire people receiving unemployment insurance benefits.
"That's like a gimme," Mendez said last week while working among a crisscrossing grid of pipes running in and out of a chiller unit at the $20.5 million JL Sorenson Recreation Center being built in Herriman by Layton Construction.
His new company, Thermal West, is one of the first to participate in the state agency's "Back to Work" program, which began in July.
The department has received enough federal funding through the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program to find work for up to 2,500 recipients of unemployment insurance benefits and 700 out-of-work youth.
By offering companies the $2,000 subsidy if they hire someone off the active unemployment rolls and put them to work for three months, at a guaranteed minimum wage of $9 an hour.
A company gets $500 up front when the unemployed person is hired, the other $1,500 when the three months is up. After that, it's up to the employer whether to keep the hired person on the payroll.
It's a good deal, said Collin Scott, superintendent of North Salt Lake-based Thermal West, a mechanical insulation installer.
"We can use the [salary] savings for future training it takes a lot of up-front training when you're on the job and hopefully we'll get a stand-up person for down the road, which is what everybody wants," said Scott.
Everybody includes state Workforce Services officials, who have seen the unemployment trust fund shrink from $855 million to $384 million, drained by the more than 300,000 jobless claims filed since the recession begin in December 2007.
"The focus was to save [the] trust fund money and to get people back to work," said Theresa Wheatley, a TANF program specialist in the department. "It's designed to help employers who are eager to hire people and get the economy going."
One of her goals is to spread word of the program as widely as possible.
Information about it is on the agency's website, jobs.utah.gov. The September newsletter that goes out to Utah employers will call attention to it, as well. A letter also is being sent to eligible unemployment insurance claimants.
"We've been marketing to employers who have shown the potential for hiring in the last year. And we're focused right now on 'green' industries," Wheatley said, acknowledging that "what we're finding is that we need to market a lot more."
Mendez learned of the program through a phone call from a Workforce Services employee, who referred him to "Back to Work" specialist Eric Olavson.
Olavson explained the program to Mendez, and then again to Scott after Mendez applied for a job at Thermal West, citing the salary rebate as an incentive.
In many instances, Workforce Services will match unemployment claimants' skills and preferences to potential companies. But in this case, Scott knew of Mendez from work he had done before for the company, so he hired him.
"We're always looking for someone who wants to be in leadership, foreman-type people," he said. "Sure, you can always pick someone up off the curb. But we want someone who wants to make a career out of it."
That's because, recession or not, at Thermal West business stays pretty steady.
"Since 1992, we've never seen a decrease in business, always an increase, no matter what happens," Scott said, noting that his company started with two dozen employees but has grown to 10 in the office and 114 in the field, an employment level that has held up for the past couple of years.
Out of several field offices, Thermal West installs or replaces insulation at all kinds of big facilities around Utah and Wyoming oil refineries, soda ash plants, natural gas facilities, trona mines, Kennecott's extensive workings along the Oquirrh Mountains, Rocky Mountain Power's two giant electric plants in Emery County and older facilities elsewhere.
"With commercial, we go with the flow and get what we can," Scott added. "The economy's slower now, but we still get our fair share of work."
And now Mendez is learning new skills a benefit that Workforce Services officials promote as economic recovery changes the nature of future jobs.
"It's quite an opportunity for claimants," Wheatley said. "They can go to a company that might not have hired them before. They can even switch industries."
Mendez liked that. Working with tightly bound PVC is a lot more desirable than dealing with asbestos all day long.
"You don't go home itching," he said as he learned tricks of the insulation trade from Corey Smith, 50, of Draper.
"I'm a willing teacher," said Smith.
"He's patient," added Mendez, who has learned a lot about taking measurements, cutting PVC precisely and comprehending how the latticework of pipes keeps big buildings temperate.
"It's not just for looks," Scott said of surrounding pipes with clean white insulation jackets. "Lines sweat, so they have to be 100 percent covered or they'll drip. Heat recovery is enhanced, too."
Just giving Mendez the chance to learn the trade is what's important to field boss Smith, who knows how hard it can be to get a job in the first place because he struggled with the reading disorder dyslexia in his youth.
"Quite a few places will say, 'We only hire people with experience.' How do you get experience if people don't hire them?" Smith asked. "You have to start somewhere."
For program information
Go to jobs.utah.gov and click on Back to Work in Highlights rotator