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Agency is facing tall task
State relying on West Michigan Works! as it begins to reinstate federal work requirements.
Michigan is starting to reinstate federal work requirements for able-bodied adults in 69 counties, but a local organization with little funding must take on the huge task.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services recently announced it informed 67,000 able-bodied adults across the 69 counties, including Muskegon County, they must fulfill the federal work requirements to continue receiving food assistance.
The decision to enforce the federal work requirements is primarily because the unemployment rate is low across the country and in the state of Michigan, according to Bob Wheaton, public information officer at MDHHS. The unemployment rate was 4.3 percent in Michigan for the month of July.
The state initially reinstated the requirements in 14 counties — Allegan, Barry, Berrien, Clinton, Eaton, Grand Traverse, Ingham, Ionia, Kalamazoo, Kent, Livingston, Oakland, Ottawa and Washtenaw — because of their low unemployment rates, Wheaton said.
As a result, able-bodied adults who would like to continue receiving food assistance must find employment. The government defines able-bodied adults as those between the ages of 18 and 49 who are without dependents. The requirement will take effect Oct.1. Individuals who are first-time enrollees into the food assistance program will have three months after Oct. 1 to find a job.
Individuals who have been receiving assistance in the past will have three months after the date of their case eligibility redetermination to find employment.
Wheaton said the state is informing individuals now so that they can take steps to prepare for the deadline.
“We wanted to get word to those individuals to get work as quickly as possible so that they can make preparations to find a job or if they need some training, they have time to get training in order to find a job to meet the federal work requirements,” he said.
One of the places to which the state government refers individuals is West Michigan Works!, a government-funded organization that aims to educate and help individuals get back into the workforce.
However, Brittany Lenertz, talent solutions director at West Michigan Works!, said the organization needs more funding.
“The most difficult thing in operating this program is that there is no funding to support it,” she said. “So, we are required to do this, people are required to come to us but there is not more funding, even though we are seeing all of our counties come on board. So, we have to be really creative in how we serve people because we (do) want to serve people.”
Despite the lack of funding, West Michigan Works! will be front and center, charged with the task of getting people back to work. Lenertz said the program provides support services to different people who have a variety of barriers, such as work history, criminal offenses, transportation, lack of professional clothing, employability skills and résumé preparation.
West Michigan Works! also helps job seekers with transportation, in terms of mileage reimbursement or payment toward transportation for a limited time, skill set training and developing career plans.
The organization, which offers assistance to more than 2,500 individuals per month, is familiar with the government’s recent efforts to get individuals who receive food assistance back to work in order to meet the federal work requirements.
Since January 2017, 14 of the state’s 83 counties have implemented the federal work requirements, including Kent and Ottawa counties. Individuals are required to work for an average of 20 hours per week each month in unsubsidized employment, participate for an average of 20 hours per week each month in an approved employment and training program and participate in community service by volunteering at a nonprofit organization.
When the state began enforcing the federal work requirements last year, Lenertz said West Michigan Works! helped about 6 percent (526 individuals) of the people who were referred to it by MDHHS between October 2017 and June 2018 find employment, which was short of what was expected.
Based on what happened with the state’s referrals last time, Lenertz said West Michigan Works! has an idea of what to expect and do this time around.
“Because we know a little about the numbers to expect, we can plan to do a little bit more one-on-one assistance,” she said. “We have career coaches that work with the program who are really working individually with people to educate them on what employers are hiring for and help them make an informed decision in creating a career plan.”
Lenertz said there are employment opportunities in a variety of fields, including manufacturing, construction and health care.
The federal work requirements waivers were first issued in 2002 when unemployment was high in the country.