WASHINGTON – Early next year, welfare clients on the Lower Eastern Shore will have an opportunity to participate in a welfare-to-work program at a local community college, nearly doubling the number of job slots for the program.
The expansion reflects a statewide trend as social service offices struggle to redesign their programs to accommodate tougher federal work requirements included in the welfare reauthorization legislation that took effect in October.
In January 2007, Wicomico, Worcester and Somerset counties will join Wor-Wic Community College in Salisbury to place 15 welfare recipients in food service, landscaping, clerical and other entry-level jobs on campus, adding to the 20 to 30 existing, work-experience job slots across the tri-county area.
And there may be a bonus for the community college workers.
“For many of them, prior to this experience, they may have never set foot on an institute of higher education and may have thought of that as an unreachable goal,” said Kevin McGuire, executive director of the Family Investment Administration for the state’s Department of Human Resources. “Maybe they’ll realize, ‘Hey, I can do that,’ while holding a job.”
With the welfare reform reauthorization, passed in the 2005 Deficit Reduction Act, federal lawmakers limited the type of activities — like education and drug counseling — that count toward the state’s required number of participants. Failure to meet the requirements can mean a loss of funding and sanctions.
“We’re trying to think in a new, creative way because they have really made it so hard to meet the work participation rate,” said Terri Jackson, Somerset County assistant director for Family Investment Administration.
Because federal law gives caseworkers 30 days to determine whether an individual is eligible for cash assistance, tri-county officials used to spend a month evaluating a client as they searched for jobs and completed other administrative tasks. After that, the client spent three weeks in a life skills class before being placed in a job or another activity.
Because of the rule changes, officials decided they could better serve their clients if they sped up the screening process. Now clients will go through a three-day orientation and assessment program before being placed.
“I think the biggest problem with anybody making the newly required participation rate is going to be the timing factor,” said Ellen Payne, Worcester County’s assistant director for the Family Investment Administration. “Now we don’t have the luxury of working with someone for a month before placement.”
For fiscal year 2005, 537 people were placed in jobs across the three counties, and 75.7 percent of those people kept their jobs for six months or longer, Jackson said. The average starting hourly wage was $7.38.
“Work experience is something that really has made people successful in moving into the work force,” Jackson said, stressing that the partnership will hopefully open new doors for the clients. “Education is the way out of poverty,” she said.
The Department of Human Resources announced a $134,000 grant awarded to the tri-county area on Monday, $94,000 of which will go toward the work experience program, Jackson said.
A large chunk of that money will go toward hiring a Wor-Wic staff member to supervise the program, acting as a liaison between the client and supervisor and providing guidance and mentoring to the client.
“This work experience program is a perfect fit for Wor-Wic Community College because it encompasses pre-employment and on-the-job training, career counseling and academic and vocation assessments, which are all services that Wor-Wic offers,” said the college’s president, Ray Hoy, in a written statement.
Customers can stay in the work experience program for up to six months, but few stay for longer than four months, said Susan Hill, who coordinates the program. She said she’s hopeful that the partnership with Wor-Wic will encourage other agencies in the community to invest in the lower-income population.
“It will help get other larger agencies on board with our programs when they see the positive outcomes Wor-Wic’s going to be getting,” Hill said. “We have some great, great (welfare) customers, they just need a chance.”