Rule change would devastate workforce system

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In an incredibly ironic move, the U.S. Department of Labor has proposed a rule change that would drastically reduce workforce services and support at a time when employers and job seekers need it most.

Instead of being laser-focused on boosting our labor participation rate, Michigan Works! agencies are wasting precious time and resources fighting to save a service delivery model that actually works.

To say that I am frustrated is an understatement.

As with most things governmental, it’s complicated. The rule change, proposed by the Employment and Training Administration within the DOL, states only state merit staff would be allowed to provide employment services funded by Wagner-Peyser Act funds. (Merit status refers to personnel systems that provide consistent and fair methods of hiring, compensating, reviewing performance and creating personnel policies.)

Currently, Michigan (along with Massachusetts and Colorado) has a waiver that allows our local merit staff to deliver services funded by the law. The funding supports hundreds of staff and a wide variety of services. This demonstration-state status allows our workforce system to be more innovative, more responsive, more flexible and more efficient. For example, basic job search assistance and recruitment services provided by Wagner-Peyser are closely integrated with other federal and state workforce programs, such as our DOL-registered apprenticeship programs and the state-funded Going Pro Talent Fund. This integration gives us greater flexibility as we work to match services and resources to employer and job-seeker needs. As another example, we received funding from the Office of New Americans to provide services to West Michigan’s diverse immigrant communities. When we exhausted the New American funding, we were able to continue serving these individuals with Wagner-Peyser funding.

Not only am I frustrated, I am struggling to understand the rationale.

The DOL is suggesting that state staff could quickly pivot to assist with unemployment insurance when claims surge. I would counter with the following: 

During the early months of the pandemic, as thousands of Michiganders lost their jobs, West Michigan Works! (WMW!) shifted focus to assist an overwhelmed unemployment system. In partnership with the Unemployment Insurance Agency, 30 WMW! staff received access and training in basic services and helped individuals file initial unemployment claims and verify identification for those whose payments were being held up due to potential fraud. Our staff took over 70,000 UIA assistance calls. We are incredibly proud of them; they are ready, willing, and more than able to assist when needed. 

If these rules were to be fully implemented, the repercussions would be numerous and far reaching. We anticipate:

  • A reduction or discontinuation of critical services provided to vulnerable populations, including veterans, immigrants, refugees, returning citizens and youth. 
  • A reduction in services to employers, including job fairs, career awareness events, support for industry-led collaboratives and administration of the Going PRO Talent Fund.
  • A reduction in staff available to serve employers and job seekers, resulting in longer wait times and customer service challenges.
  • A reduction in the number of Michigan Works! service centers.

This is not the time for reductions. This is an all-hands-on-deck moment. We need all our resources and energy focused on helping employers find qualified talent and helping individuals find meaningful employment.

Michigan Works! agencies and their boards are working with local and federal partners, including U.S. Reps Fred Upton and Debbie Dingell, and the governor’s team at the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, to maintain Michigan’s demonstration-state status.

To date, more than 500 public comments have been posted, mostly in opposition to the proposed rule change. Many are from individuals and businesses that have directly benefited from our services. I am grateful to them all for their support.

Jacob Maas is CEO of West Michigan Works!

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