February 16, 2011
ALLOWING JOBS FIRST EMPLOYMENT SERVICES (JFES) CLIENTS TO ENROLL IN BASIC EDUCATIONAL ACTIVITIES
By: Robin K. Cohen, Principal Analyst
You asked if the state can allow JFES participants who already have a high school diploma or equivalent but lack basic reading, writing, or math skills to enroll in basic educational activities as part of the first 20 hours of their minimum 30-hour federally mandated work-related activity requirement.
The Office of Legislative Research is not authorized to give legal opinions and this should not be considered one.
The JFES program provides employment services to people receiving Temporary Family Assistance (TFA), the state's cash assistance program for low-income families. It is the work component of the state's welfare-to-work program and helps the state meet the work participation requirements. States failing to meet work participation rate requirements risk losing a portion of their Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant.
With two exceptions—one for foreign high school graduates and the other for individuals engaged in vocational education programs with “embedded” basic skills—the state may not count adults with a high school diploma or equivalent participating in basic skills education towards the work participation obligation.
Federal law generally requires able-bodied adults in households receiving cash welfare to engage in work-related activities for at least 30 hours per week.
The first 20 hours must be in a “core activity,” such as employment, job training, community service, or vocational educational training. Basic reading and writing classes (e.g., adult basic education) generally must be taken during the last 10 hours.
The restrictions on allowable activities apply to adults who do not have a high school diploma or equivalent as well. The hours they spend pursuing basic education count towards the first 20 hours only if they are embedded in a vocational education program. Otherwise, these adults may count time spent pursuing a GED only as part of the last 10 hours.
The state has taken advantage of the vocational education exception by allowing individuals to get math or reading skills as part of a vocational education activity if they need these skills to succeed (e.g., get a certificate of completion) in the vocational education activity. These opportunities are limited in terms of the number of slots and vocational skills offered, according to Alice Frechette-Johns, manager of the Department of Labor (DOL) welfare-to-work program.
JFES AND WELFARE-TO-WORK LAW
Work Activities and Federal Participation Rate
Connecticut's JFES program is one component of the state's Jobs First program, the other being TFA, which generally provides 21 months of assistance to needy families. JFES, which is administered by DOL, works with these families to ensure that the adult in the family is working and able to support the family at the end of the 21-month assistance period.
The JFES program helps the state meet work participation requirements under the 1996 federal welfare reform law, which gives TANF block grant funds to states to provide cash assistance and money to pay for job preparation activities. The law generally requires that 50% of able-bodied adults in families receiving cash assistance engage in work-related activities for at least 30 hours per week. This is called the work participation rate.
During the first 20 of the required 30 hours, only certain “core” activities are allowed. The core activities include:
1. unsubsidized employment,
2. subsidized private sector employment,
3. subsidized public sector employment,
4. paid work experience,
5. on-the-job training,
6. job search/job readiness,
7. vocational education training (up to 30% of caseload and 12 months per participant),
8. community service, and
9. providing child care for others doing community service.
For the last 10 hours, individuals can engage in job skills or education directly related to employment or high school completion or its equivalent. Teen parents who do not have their high school diploma can attend high school or its equivalent during the first 20 hours (42 USC § 607).
Participation in basic educational activities during the first 20 hours would not be considered engaging in a core activity unless it was embedded in a vocational activity. Likewise, the state cannot count these activities towards the work participation rate in the last 10 hours if the adult engaging in them already has a high school diploma or GED. The only exception would be foreign high school graduates.
The state has sometimes removed families from the work participation rate cacluation in order to engage adults in non-core activities, including basic education, when those activities are needed to help the adult achieve the goals in his or her employment plan. In part, the state can do this because federal law permits a state to lower its work participation rate when its cash assistance caseload is reduced over time. This “caseload reduction credit” has enabled Connecticut to lower its rate from 50% to about 24% in FFY 11.
INCORPORATING BASIC SKILLS INTO ALLOWABLE JFES ACTIVITY
State law requires TFA recipients to work with DOL in developing an employment services plan as a condition of receiving cash (CGS § 17b-688c). One of the goals of the plan is to ensure that the work participation rates are met, either through employment or engagement in other allowable TANF work activities deemed appropriate based on the assessment of the participant's needs (Department of Labor, Jobs First Employment Services Program Procedures Manual, § 1205).
DOL assesses a participant's basic skills and if he or she lacks the skills needed to achieve the employment plan objective, DOL assigns remedial education in conjunction with other “core” activities, according to Frechette-Johns.
Frechette-Johns reports that a few years ago, DOL realized that a number of JFES participants who needed vocational education to obtain a job could not enroll in the available vocational education program because they had low assessment scores in math, reading, or both. At that time, money became available to provide more vocational education combined with adult education and DOL issued a request for proposals to program providers who could create a vocational education certificate program that incorporated basic skills necessary to ensure that clients could both receive the vocational certificate and find a job in that occupation. This type of program tends to be one of the more expensive work-related activities that the state provides that also meets the federal requirements, adds Frechette-Johns.
Frechette-Johns notes that if someone needs adult basic education but vocational education is not appropriate for him or her, the DOL case manager will try to combine 20 hours of a different core activity with the education in a way that meets the participation rate. But sometimes, JFES participants engage in education alone, or education combined with other non-core activities. In this case, the JFES participant is not considered to be participating for purposes of the federal work participation rate requirement.
Frechette-Johns cautions, and the State Department of Education confirms, that local adult education programs target individuals who do not have a high school diploma and those with limited English proficiency. Thus, a JFES participant who already has a high school diploma might not be permitted to attend a particular local adult education program.