For unemployed in N.H., working for free pays off

Steve Gleason participates in N.H.'s "return to work" program, where unemployed people work for free at businesses that may be looking for workers.

(CBS News) MANCHESTER, N.H. - Steve Gleason puts in 24 hours a week making circuit boards at Electropac, a Manchester, New Hampshire manufacturer. But he's not getting paid.

"I'm very desperate -- you know. I would do anything for a job," Gleason said. "I've been living off my savings."

It's called the "return to work" program - New Hampshire's attempt to match those looking for work with businesses looking for workers. And it doesn't cost company owners like Electropac's Ray Boissoneau a penny.

"They continue to collect their unemployment during that period, so they've not lost anything," Boissoneau said. "The only difference is that instead of sitting around the house, they're able to come to a factory and begin the opportunity to get skilled work and get off the unemployment rolls."

Boissoneau said that the program gives them a helping hand by giving them a leg-up into a job.

The unemployed have up to six weeks to prove themselves. In two years, 236 have turned their volunteer work into permanent jobs -- that's a 40 percent success rate. Boissoneau has tried out seven people and four have made it.

But Boissoneau says he doesn't look at it as unfairly getting free labor.

"It is fair because they are in a process of getting trained for an opportunity for their future," he said.

Gleason's been laid off twice since 2001, the last time 18 months ago. Now 51, his age makes getting hired even tougher.

Gleason said that it would be nice not to have to return to the unemployment office: "I think I spent so much time there they all know me by name: 'Hey everybody, Steve is here.'"

Two days after we first spoke with Gleason, Boissoneau had something to tell him.

"Today is the day you're being invited to join us full-time," he told Gleason, shaking his hand. "Congratulations."

Finally, Steve Gleason gets a paycheck and he says it's like getting a "new life."

One hundred and four thousand Americans have been out of work for as long as Gleason was -- 18 months. They'd like a new life too.

  • Jim Axelrod
    Jim Axelrod

    Jim Axelrod is the chief investigative correspondent and senior national correspondent for CBS News, reporting for "CBS This Morning," the "CBS Evening News," "CBS Sunday Morning," and other CBS News broadcasts.