Gov. Peter Shumlin made headlines in January when he proposed a five-year lifetime cap on welfare benefits. But lawmakers only recently found out that he also wants to eliminate 12 positions dedicated to helping welfare recipients find the jobs they need to get off the program.
Commissioner David Yacovone of the Department for Children and Families said Tuesday he wants to divert $1.2 million away from job placement services for Reach Up beneficiaries and use the money instead for substance abuse counseling for the same population.
He said that even after the cuts, his department will retain a robust in-house employment services division.
"But what we don’t have is enough mental health and substance abuse services," Yacovone said. "The folks that we’re asking to go to work need mental health and substance abuse help, and we haven’t been providing that."
The cuts would phase in over two years: Six positions would disappear beginning with fiscal year 2014, and the remainder would be eliminated the year after that.
Advocates for low-income Vermonters say the proposed changes couldn’t come at a worse time. More than 700 Vermont families later this year will face a reduction in benefits, or the elimination of them altogether, if the Democratic governor’s plan to impose a 60-month cap wins approval.
Christopher Curtis, a staff attorney at Vermont Legal Aid, said the state ought to be ramping up job placement services in advance of the time limits, not paring them down.
"To say that the Reach Up plan at this point is half-baked would be to suggest that the oven is even on," said Curtis, a staunch critic of the proposed 60-month cap.
"The goal of the program is to help people successfully graduate from Reach Up and get back to full and stable employment. And that’s exactly what these employees they want to eliminate are doing."
The positions in question are funded by a $1.2 million grant from the Agency of Human Services to the Vermont Department of Labor. Employees filling those positions work in Reach Up offices scattered across the state.
The annual grant arrangement has been in place for more than a decade.
"I think our employees have done a very good job in the program, and they certainly take their work on behalf of Vermonters very seriously," said Labor Commissioner Annie Noonan.
Yacovone said the loss of those positions shouldn’t put any new hurdles in recipients’ paths to employment. He said the agency has its own 47-person staff dedicated to job training and work placement for Reach Up beneficiaries.
"It would absolutely be a questionable move if we didn’t have those 47 people," Yacovone said. "But we do."
He said the Reach Up clients served by the Department of Labor "are our most work-ready" and face fewer employment barriers than other welfare recipients.
"It’s almost like a portfolio that’s out of balance," Yacovone said. "We’ve got a surplus of employment services, and practically no mental health and substance abuse supports. It’s all about a balanced approach."
Curtis, however, said employees in the Agency of Human Services are already forced to juggle impossibly high caseloads. Eliminating positions at the Department of Labor, he said, will only lead to bigger backlogs and poorer services for welfare recipients trying to find work.
The Vermont State Employees Association says the Department of Labor employees each carry caseloads of between 40 and 60 Reach Up clients. Data provided by Noonan’s office indicated that between July and February, those employees collectively got 420 welfare recipients into jobs.
"What we have is a proven track record of success," Curtis said. "To add new cases onto case managers in the Agency of Human Services is going to create a burden that’s unsustainable."
In a written statement, VSEA legislative specialist Cassandra Magliozzi said the employees "provide a critical state service to Vermonters in crisis."
"The (Labor Department) Reach Up proposed layoffs will hurt program participants who are trying to move off of state benefits and get back to work," Magliozzi said.
Sen. Claire Ayer, an Addison County Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare, said she didn’t find out about the proposed reductions until she got word last week from a member of the state employees union.
Ayer’s committee is vetting the Shumlin proposal for Reach Up time limits, and she said Tuesday that the plan to eliminate job placement positions adds a new wrinkle to the debate. She said she’s had trouble getting information from the administration about what precisely the plan would mean for welfare beneficiaries.
"The question is what do we give up over here, and what are we getting over there," Ayer said. "And they’re not answering. And we have asked them a number of times."
Yacovone said the need for substance abuse treatment is made more urgent by the looming time limits. And he said the taxpayer money will yield far higher returns in addiction counseling than it has in employment services.
He said the state plans to contract for the treatment programs with regional nonprofit service agencies, whose services come cheaper than those offered at the Department of Labor.
He said the money should buy twice as many positions at the designated agencies than it does at the Department of Labor.
"How can we ask people to face time limits without helping them with their problems with addiction?" Yacovone said.
Noonan said she’s going to try to avoid layoffs by finding spots for the eliminated workers elsewhere in her 315-person department.