Several sites have modified their Work First approaches for clients who disclose barriers.
Decisions about the timing of efforts to uncover barriers to employment are affected by the welfare reform philosophy of the state and/or locality. By its strictest definition, a Work First approach to welfare reform rests on the belief that any job is a good job, and that the labor market should determine whether or not a welfare recipient is employable. Several of the study sites reported that they employ a Work First approach. However, reflecting the sites’ commitment to barrier identification, this approach has been modified such that if a client discloses a barrier, she may not be required to engage in job search immediately. Nonetheless, given the issues noted above regarding clients’ willingness to disclose barriers early in her TANF experience, it is likely that some clients with barriers to employment will be referred to job search activities as a first step in their service plan. In such a situation, the client’s success or failure in job search would be another way in which barriers are identified.
Applicant job search requirements are one way TANF agencies pursue a Work First approach. By requiring a client to look for a job while her application is pending, staff can determine which clients are employable, despite any substance abuse or mental health problems, domestic violence situations, or learning disabilities. The TANF programs in Las Vegas, NV and Montgomery County, KS require that TANF applicants participate in job search while their applications are being processed. However, in both sites if barriers are revealed, the client may be exempt from this requirement.
In the early days of its welfare reform effort, the state of Kansas required all TANF applicants to participate in job search while eligibility was being determined. As the TANF caseload declined and it seemed to agency officials that remaining clients were harder-to-serve and faced barriers to immediate job entry, this policy changed. At the time of our visit, TANF workers in Montgomery County used a formal screening tool with applicants. The Temporary Assistance to Families Applicant Job Search/Employability Assessment Process Initial Screening Guide is used to determine whether or not barriers exist that would make applicant job search more likely to be a frustrating or disheartening experience, as opposed to a productive step toward finding a job. If the screen indicates that clients meet certain conditions, such as being currently involved in the Vocational Rehabilitation program, having difficulty getting hired or keeping a job, or having a mental health, domestic violence, or substance
abuse problem that interferes with looking for work, they would not be required to fulfill applicant job search requirements.
The study sites have found ways to maintain a work focus while also incorporating barrier identification strategies.
While maintaining a strong work focus, Kent, WA has also slightly modified its Work First strategy for clients who disclose personal barriers that would prohibit obtaining employment. Clients who disclose an unobserved barrier to employment while completing the Virtual Interactive Employability Worksheet (VIEW) with their case manager can be referred directly to a social worker instead of to the Employment Security Department (ESD) for job search services. However, if a barrier was not uncovered at this early point in the client flow, the client would be referred to ESD and be required to engage in job search as her first step toward obtaining employment and leaving welfare. This initial job search period lasts for 12 weeks during which the client is assisted by ESD job counselors. If after approximately nine weeks the client is not making progress toward finding a job, ESD and TANF agency staff meet to discuss the client’s situation. This “staffing” may result in the client being referred to a social worker or other partners for additional assessment.
Of the sites visited, Minneapolis, MN maintains the strictest Work First approach. Although service strategies vary widely across contract employment service providers, generally clients who do not initially disclose barriers are required to engage in eight weeks of job search. If the client is not successful in obtaining employment, she would complete a “secondary assessment” with her employment service provider. The results of the sec ondar y assessment may indicate that the client could benefit from barrier-specific assessment or referral to other services such as the IRIS Program.
Some welfare agencies that perceive their remaining welfare clients to be harder-to-serve, or face unobserved barriers to employment, are beginning to rethink their Work First approach and, as in the study sites, have found ways to maintain a work focus while also incorporating barrier identification strategies. Some study sites still rely on the labor market to be an early determinant of a client’s employability, but also provide an opportunity for clients who are aware of barriers to employment to reveal them and thus not be required to engage in job search activities immediately.
While some might argue that these sites no longer employ a Work First approach, staff in the study sites were clear that helping clients leave welfare for work remained a top priority. It is important to note that these sites have not reverted to a pre-welfare reform strategy of exempting clients from participation. In all of the examples above, clients may be allowed to engage in non-work related activities in an effort to remove or mitigate barriers. However, these activities are considered a necessary step for a client to ultimately become employable and leave welfare.