COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) – Ohio officials have asked the federal government for flexibility in work requirements for some welfare recipients, saying that certain rules don’t provide enough time for people to complete vocational training or other job-related activities.
The request sent in early October comes as the state aims to better help needy families move off public assistance and into sustainable employment.
Ohio is the first state to ask for such a waiver from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. A department spokeswoman says it’s reviewing the request.
About 13,000 adults on welfare in Ohio are subject to the federal work requirements. Those in the cash assistance program are eligible for up to 36 months of benefits, currently $473 a month for a family of three. With some exceptions, most adults and minor heads of household are required to participate in work activities for at least 30 hours a week. Those activities could include on-the-job training, job search and job readiness assistance, community service programs and others.
State officials say current federal rules governing such work activities “essentially mandate a cookie-cutter approach.”
In its waiver application, Gov. John Kasich’s administration said certain requirements make it harder for caseworkers to customize job assistance to welfare recipients’ needs – whether it’s getting a GED or high school diploma or occupational training.
“Many individuals end up assigned to activities that ‘count’ toward work participation but have little or nothing to do with connecting them to meaningful employment,” wrote Cynthia Dungey, director of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.
Ohio wants to adjust four federal requirements, including one that limits vocational education training to 12 months.
Vocational training for a number of in-demand jobs exceeds that time limit, said Doug Lumpkin, who leads the state’s Office of Human Services Innovation. For instance, at least five semesters of courses are required to become a paralegal or dental hygienist.
“So if a person wanted to be a paralegal, it would theoretically take them longer to obtain their paralegal certificate than the federal rules allow you to obtain it,” Lumpkin said in a recent interview.
In its request, the state asked the federal government for permission to boost the vocational-training limit to 36 months.
Ohio officials also want to drop a 16-hour monthly cap on “good cause hours,” but keep the 80-hour annual limit. The Kasich administration contends the move would provide more leeway to welfare recipients who need to care for a sick child or tend to other life circumstances that impact their work participation. Officials also want to scrap the way the federal government distinguishes between certain work activities while increasing a time limit on job search and job readiness to 12 weeks from six.
The state’s request comes as Kasich’s administration is creating a more comprehensive way to address the needs of individuals receiving public assistance, specifically the roughly 4,000 welfare recipients between the ages of 16 and 24, so they can become more self-sufficient and gainfully employed. The new case management effort was part of the most recent state budget.
Joel Potts, executive director of the Ohio Job and Family Services Directors’ Association, said the waiver would help alleviate some of the pressure county agencies experience in trying to meet the federal requirements as the state implements its new case management program. Counties can face financial penalties for falling short of the work rules.
Potts said the waiver would give agencies more options in placing individuals in appropriate work or training settings.
“We have to put everyone in a funnel and it’s really a narrow funnel,” he said. “The more flexibility we’re given, the better we can serve clients.”
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