A Georgia program pairing job seekers with potential employers for on-the-job training is part of President Obama's plan to help tackle the nation's bedeviling unemployment problem.
The program, which is credited with helping place more than 5,000 Georgians in jobs since it began in 2003, enjoys bipartisan buy-in and no big price tag. The fans of the program known as Georgia Work$ run the range of the political spectrum, from civil rights activist Jesse Jackson on the left to GOP leaders in Congress on the right.
But labor leaders question whether not paying workers while they are on a job site is legal.
The architect of Georgia Work$, former Georgia Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond, said the program simply empowers out-of-work people with a new tool in their quest for employment.
"If you can't increase or revisit stimulus spending, how can you get Americans working again?" said Thurmond, now an attorney at the Atlanta firm Butler, Wooten & Fryhofer. "I think that's the opportunity that the Georgia Works strategy presents."
Georgia Works has been replicated in New Hampshire and won praise from Jackson, former President Bill Clinton and House Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
Boehner and Cantor said they brought up the program to Obama twice during talks about the economy in December 2009.
"We stand ready to work with him if there is interest in implementing a similar program on the federal level," Cantor, R-Va., said.
Obama seems warm to the idea even though one of his key constituencies, organized labor, claims it exploits workers desperate for jobs.
"There is a smart program in Georgia," Obama said. "We will give a subsidy to any company that hires you with your unemployment insurance so that you're essentially earning a salary and getting your foot in the door into that company. And if they hire you full time, then the unemployment insurance is used to subsidize you getting trained and getting a job."
Union leaders, however, escalated their criticism of the program in recent days. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka sent a letter to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis last week demanding an investigation into Georgia Works and asking whether it violates federal law.
"We believe the Georgia Works model is fundamentally unsound," Trumka said.
In a letter to Solis, Trumka said the program is illegal and "is encouraging or requiring jobless workers to provide free work for private employers in order to receive the jobless benefits for which they have already paid in the form of foregone wages."
Labor Department spokesman Carl Fillichio declined to say whether the agency would investigate the union's complaints, but said each state must determine whether those taking part in the program qualify as bona fide trainees.
Under Georgia Work$, people who register with the state for unemployment benefits can volunteer to receive up to 24 hours of on-the-job training for up to eight weeks. They also receive a weekly stipend to cover costs such as child care or transportation.
The AFL-CIO wants an audited, independent review of Georgia Work$. The George Department of Labor, which administers the program, said 58 percent of those who participate are employed within three months and even those who did not find work received a training certificate to help boost their marketability.