Getting a Job, Growing a Career: A Conversation With Two State Agencies

Speakers: James D. Fielder, Jr., Ph.D., Secretary of the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation; Christopher J. McCabe, Secretary of the Maryland Department of Human Resources

Deborah Povich, executive director, Job Opportunities Task Force

Introductory Remarks: Robert L. Bogomolny, president, University of Baltimore; Patrice Cromwell, Program Development Fellow for Workforce and Economic Development, Open Society Institute – Baltimore; Joanne Nathans, president, Job Opportunities Task Force.

Over 70 people joined JOTF in welcoming Secretaries Fielder and McCabe for a discussion about how the Ehrlich administration plans to move more low-income workers and job seekers to economic self-sufficiency.

Two state agencies, the Department of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation (DLLR) and the Department of Human Resources (DHR), play a vital role in helping low-income workers and their families move up and out of poverty.

DLLR assists job seekers in finding employment, provides unemployment insurance compensation, and offers training for workers to advance in their careers. DLLR also assists employers by administering incumbent worker training initiatives like the STEP Program, and by providing access to federal and state tax credits.

DHR implements programs to promote family self-sufficiency through employment and work supports. In addition, businesses can work with DHR’s Office of Work Opportunities to recruit from targeted populations and obtain financial incentives for hiring.

Secretary James Fielder remarked that despite the fact that Maryland’s lower unemployment rate is one-third below the national average, the State must do more to resolve its “underlying structural problems” where discouraged workers are concerned. He said that Governor Robert Ehrlich had charged DLLR with working to resolve these and other workforce challenges facing Maryland workers and job seekers.

Secretary Fielder outlined several issues on DLLR’s agenda, including:

Unemployment Insurance – Maryland’s unemployment insurance trust fund has a required solvency level of $832 million dollars. At the end of September there is projected to be $657 million in the trust fund. This shortfall will result in a surcharge on employers, who will pay $85 to $87 per employee more each year beginning in January 2004. It is important to protect the solvency of this fund, so the fund is “healthy” and available when workers lose jobs through no fault of their own. Any effort to use unemployment insurance funds to increase worker benefits must be weighed against the potential fiscal impact of that use.

DLLR Reorganization – DLLR is undergoing a reorganization process designed to increase efficiency and improve the agency’s services to low-income workers. Since January DLLR has experienced a 10 percent decrease in staff, while it increased its efficiency by 14 percent.

The Governor’s Workforce Investment Board, (GWIB), formerly an independent State agency, is now part of DLLR under the chairmanship of Gino Gemignani, senior vice-president of the Whiting-Turner Contracting Company. GWIB hopes to become “more policy-driven,” and less of an “operating entity” than it has in the past.

Low-income Workers – Secretary Fielder is working with Secretary McCabe, State Superintendent of Schools Nancy Grasmick, and Department of Business and Economic Development Secretary Aris Melissaratos on policy solutions to the employment needs of ex-prisoners who re-enter society. Under current State policy, for example, inmates are prohibited from accessing the internet, which precludes them from engaging in some methods of distance learning.

Under Congressional proposals for the reauthorization of the federal Workforce Investment Act of 1998 (WIA), lower amounts of federal workforce funding will be available for worker training and program administration. Federal Wagner-Peyser funding to Maryland faces similar cuts.

At the State level, funding for the two-year-old Skills-based Training for Employment Promotion (STEP) program was cut from $1 million to $500,000 this year. A new initiative, Maryland Business Works, will apply $1 million of a federal incentive grant toward incumbent worker training. This program will provide a dollar-for-dollar match for training to businesses with 50 employees or less that are located in the State’s WIA regions. The program will not be targeted to low income workers.

The goal of this and other DLLR training programs is to move public assistance recipients “off of welfare and into a skilled job.”

Secretary Christopher McCabe described Maryland’s welfare reform strategy, saying that the goal of DHR was for public assistance recipients to “independently support themselves.” Workforce development is an essential part of achieving this goal, and requires flexibility at the local level and partnerships with nonprofit organizations.

DHR manages the Family Investment Administration (FIA), which was established in 1995 to assist Temporary Cash Assistance (TCA) recipients in finding work and other services at local Department of Social Services (DSS) offices. Under FIA guidelines, each local DSS office was instructed to develop family investment plans for public assistance recipients to move to self-sufficiency. Consequently, each local DSS branch implements a different strategy to best serve families within its region. Kevin Maguire is the new executive director of FIA.

Families have both rights and responsibilities in the public assistance process. For example, they have the right to receive fair and equal treatment and to receive responses within 30 days of applying for assistance. Recipient responsibilities include pursuing child support, seeking employment and/or participating in allowable work activities, and achieving self-sufficiency prior to the five-year time limit on public assistance.

DHR hopes to achieve a “one-stop shopping” system in which recipients can access Food Stamps, TCA, medical assistance, and other types of assistance at one location with a minimum of bureaucratic barriers.

Secretary McCabe cited the “tremendous success” of the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF, commonly known as welfare reform) program in reducing welfare caseloads and moving recipients into employment. Still, a “change of culture” in the administration of public assistance is required to address recipients’ barriers to employment.

Regarding childcare, Secretary McCabe said that “there is no evidence” to indicate that parents are dropping out of the workforce because they are unable to find adequate care for their children. He attributed the long waiting list that currently exists for childcare services to the $21 million deficit in the Purchase of Care Program.

One of the goals of the Ehrlich administration is “universal engagement” of public assistance recipients in work or work activities so that “no TCA customer is left behind.”

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