ReWORKing Welfare Technical Assistance for States and Localities. 15. Caseload Size and Specialization

03/01/1997

The case manager is the most visible staff member in most work first programs, and is responsible for overseeing a participant's journey from welfare to work. How your program operates will therefore be shaped largely by the decisions you make about each case manager's caseload size and responsibilities. Some program administrators may choose not to implement a formal case management structure, instead having participants work with whichever staff member is available at a given time. However, most administrators find that maintaining regular caseloads allows staff to develop ongoing relationships with participants and more effectively motivate them, guide them, and monitor their progress.

Caseload Size

Caseloads in work first programs being studied in three sites as part of the JOBS Evaluation ranged from 95 to 120 cases per case manager. In general, smaller caseloads (100 or less) enable staff to provide more individualized support, to monitor participation more stringently, and to follow up more quickly on attendance and other problems. Smaller caseloads also afford more opportunity for case managers to use persuasion instead of relying on penalties to increase participation. In contrast, large caseloads (as high as 200 or more) make it possible to process a much larger share of the eligible total caseload through the intake points of the program. The trade-off is largely between breadth of participation and intensity of services.

How large caseloads can be without negatively affecting services also depends on other factors. For example, staff can manage larger caseloads in programs with strong computer systems, clerical and other supports, and specialized handling of some tasks, such as child care or attendance monitoring. If case managers do not have those supports, or if they do not have clear guidance on how to prioritize their work, they can be overwhelmed even with smaller caseloads. The American Public Welfare Association recommends that welfare-to-work program administrators consider the following questions in determining caseload size:

  • What are the characteristics (that is, the degree of job readiness) of the participants with whom case managers work?
  • What are the functions that case managers are expected to perform?
  • What are the performance goals that case managers must satisfy?
  • How much access do case managers have to community services?
  • What levels of clerical support and automation are available to case managers?
  • What are the background and training of case managers?

Caseload issues are different in work first than in other welfare-to-work programs because program activities are shorter-term and participants are moving more quickly into employment. Caseload sizes may need to be smaller, as case managers work more intensively with their entire caseload, closely monitoring the participation even of those referred to outside activities. At the same time, the program may be able to serve more participants over time, because of rapid turnover.

Specialization

Different programs define the case manager's job in different ways. In some programs, case managers are responsible for each step along the participant's path to employment, from orientation to job placement. In others, some tasks-such as assessment or job development-are handled by specialized staff. Similarly, programs may assign caseloads randomly across case managers, or may instead assign cases to specialized case managers on the basis of participants' characteristics or activities. The pros and cons of both types of specialization are outlined below. If you choose to specialize staff functions, you may want to consider adopting a team approach, in which staff with different specialties work together to serve program participants.

  • Specialization by program function. Designating certain program elements as the responsibility of specialized staff members can allow staff to focus their attention and develop expertise. If case managers not only have to counsel and monitor participants but also must conduct assessments, facilitate job clubs, and call employers to develop jobs, it can be difficult to give each of these aspects the attention it needs. Different functions also require different skills, and specialization can take advantage of staff with those skills. (Some program elements might also be contracted out to specialized service providers.) Finally, specialization can free case managers of administrative responsibilities so that they can focus on employment. For example, specialized staff might handle scheduling orientations, monitoring attendance, or processing child care payments.

Generalist case managers, in contrast, may develop stronger relationships with participants, and can use information they learn in one role to promote employment through another (for example, using knowledge of a participant's interests and needs when developing job leads). A structure in which case managers are responsible for more pieces of the program can also avoid communication problems between staff and establish a clear locus of responsibility for moving participants into employment.

  • Specialization by participant characteristics and activities. Another option is to assign certain groups of participants to specialized case managers. This type of specialization can provide non-English-speaking participants with a case manager who speaks their language or can ensure that teen parents get special attention. In Grand Rapids, Michigan, staff caseloads are coordinated with participants' assignments to different service providers. Specialized staff get to know the service providers, thus facilitating communication and coordination.

A drawback of specialized case management is that caseloads may shift whenever participants' characteristics change, as when a participant completes an education program. Every time this occurs, you risk losing participation and delaying progress toward employment. Separating out participants can also send mixed messages about work expectations by suggesting that some people need special services. Finally, specialized caseloads can be difficult for administrators and supervisors to manage, because they may require different degrees of personalized attention, variations in caseload size, different types of supervision, and different performance standards.