ReWORKing Welfare Technical Assistance for States and Localities. 31. Retention and Reemployment


Many people will leave welfare for work, but many of those will lose their jobs and return to welfare. Interviews with participants in Project Match found that nearly 60 percent lost their jobs within six months, and no single factor explained the bulk of job loss. Program administrators, staff, and participants should have realistic expectations about job loss, so that they see such experiences as part of a process of securing lasting employment, rather than as failures. Several programs are also adding services to their program mix that aim to increase retention and help participants get new jobs quickly if their first ones do not work out.

The decision to spend resources on retention and reemployment services may mean that fewer resources are available for helping new participants find jobs. However, a focus on retention and reemployment may become even more important in the context of time limits (see section 40), which will affect not just long-term welfare recipients but also those who cycle on and off welfare.

Retention and Reemployment Issues

A study of post-employment services in four sites found that participants faced four main challenges as they began work:

  • Adapting to the additional costs and demands of working
  • Meeting the performance, cultural, and emotional demands of the workplace
  • Dealing with negative reactions from family and friends
  • Finding a new job if they lost their initial one

This section offers strategies for addressing retention and reemployment in work first programs. Opinions are mixed as to the usefulness of these strategies. For example, staff at Project Match have not found it useful to focus on teaching participants how to keep a job before they have found one. They recommend focusing instead on quick reemployment if (as is often the case) a job does not last. Project Match has developed a dynamic welfare-to-work model that expects participants to move through several different jobs and services before succeeding in long-term employment. Administrators in other programs, however, believe that the chances of job retention can be improved by preparing participants for some of the issues they will confront on the job and by teaching job-keeping strategies.

Research is only beginning to look at the effectiveness of retention strategies, so the added benefit is not yet clear. Results of the Post-Employment Services Demonstration (PESD) may shed light on the effectiveness of these strategies. The demonstration sites provided retention, reemployment, and extended case management services to JOBS participants who obtained employment. Specific services included: counseling and moral support; help with expenses; help accessing benefits; and job search and development assistance for reemployment.

Five Points at Which Retention Can Be Addressed

  • Before participants get a job. Retention strategies can be incorporated into the program, so that participants learn not only how to get a job but also what will happen when they get one. This includes information about how their grants will be affected, how to budget, skills for interacting with co-workers and supervisors, and general problem-solving techniques. Similarly, the program can include a discussion of job progression, so that participants understand that their first job may not be their ideal job but can be a steppingstone to a better job. Finally, the program should emphasize that the job search skills that participants are learning can be used to look for a better job or to find a new job if the first one does not work out.
  • When participants get a job. When a participant gets a job, her case manager should review with her what will happen to her grant and should help her obtain transitional and work-related benefits, such as child care, medical assistance, and the Earned Income Credit (see sections 37 and 39). Assisting participants in receiving these benefits is one of the most important and useful retention services that programs can provide. This is also a good opportunity to review and resolve any issues, such as child care, housing, or personal problems, that might interfere with success on the job. America Works conducts an in-depth needs assessment after participants are placed in jobs. Program staff go to great lengths to do whatever is necessary to ensure that participants are able to succeed in employment-for example, helping a participant obtain stable child care and even babysitting a child until care can be arranged.
  • After participants get a job, for those who continue to receive welfare. Especially in high-grant states, participants may find jobs but still be eligible for welfare if those jobs are low wage or part time. Program administrators need to decide whether the program will continue to work with those who combine work and welfare, in order to help them increase their hours, get a promotion, or find another job that will get them completely off assistance. Retention activities can be especially helpful when they catch participants at the point when something happens to jeopardize continued employment. This requires close contact with employees (and employers, when appropriate) and is staff intensive. Staff need to gain trust and ask probing rather than general questions to get at potential problems, as new employees may be reluctant to reveal difficulties or may not identify them as issues.
  • After participants get a job, for those who leave welfare. Program staff can follow up with participants who have begun working (and with employers, when appropriate) to learn how things are going on the job and help resolve any problems. Again, this requires more than just checking in after 30 days on the job; it involves building trust, providing frequent contact and support, asking probing questions, and even visiting the employment site when appropriate. In the PESD study, moral support and encouragement were the kinds of help most valued by participants. Another idea is to facilitate peer support groups, in which former participants can share work experiences, solve problems, and provide mutual support. Connecticut operates a "mentoring" program that matches newly employed participants with other former welfare recipients to provide support and guidance.
  • When participants who have gotten jobs lose them. Many participants who find jobs and leave welfare will lose those jobs and return to the rolls. Welfare systems should establish mechanisms for determining in the eligibility process whether an applicant has been through the work first program before. Some sites may want to make sure that such participants are quickly brought back into the program, so they can begin a renewed job search while also exploring and addressing the reasons why the first job did not last. Others may feel that, with scarce resources, the program should focus on reaching as many new participants as possible. Even so, it might make sense to allow former participants immediate access to job leads and telephones to conduct their own reemployment search-even if they have not reapplied for welfare. Program "alumnae" might be allowed access to the program's job resource room for one or two years after they leave welfare, so that they can use it to conduct a new job search or look for advancement opportunities.