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INSIDE THE STATEHOUSE: Required Work One visits move jobless off assistance

January 30, 2016

statehouse-weidenbenerLegislation that passed the Indiana House and is headed to the Senate would put into law what folks running the state’s unemployment system have already found works in practice.

The bill would require all Hoosiers receiving unemployment payments to appear at a Work One center after about a month on the program, which is otherwise handled almost exclusively online.

The goal seems obvious: Assess workers struggling to find a new job and get them the help they need. That could mean career counseling, job training or assistance with resumes—all services provided free at Work One centers across the state.

But what’s interesting about requiring people to appear is that it seems to jump-start some to get back into the workforce on their own. In other cases, it roots out fraud, according to the Department of Workforce Development, the state agency that administers the unemployment system.

Leonard Leonard

“The program has been tremendously successful,” said Rep. Dan Leonard, R-Huntington, the author of the legislation.

Currently, DWD sends a notice to Hoosiers after four weeks of unemployment assistance saying they must come into a Work One center for a skills assessment and introduction to the center’s services.

About 30 percent never call and never show up. Instead, “they re-engage in the labor force right away,” DWD spokesman Joe Frank said.

Well, that’s true for the vast majority of them, according to the agency’s tracking. A few were likely receiving benefits fraudulently and were scared off by the requirement that they show an ID when they go to the Work One center, Frank said. Those who don’t come in have their benefits suspended until they do.

Officials credit the program with giving Indiana’s unemployment system the nation’s second-lowest rate of fraud, up from 23rd during the recession.

Then there’s the 70 percent of recipients who do show up.

“They are the ones who really need to be taking advantage of our services,” Frank said. Those recipients are assigned career counselors who check to see that they’re searching for appropriate jobs and offer help with skills and education.”

Frank called the program—dubbed Jobs for Hoosiers—a “game changer” for the agency, the system and its users.

At the height of the Great Recession, unemployed workers in Indiana were stuck on the system for an average of 18 to 20 weeks. Today, it’s more like 12. That’s in large part because the economy has gotten better and companies are hiring again. But Frank said it’s also thanks to the appearance requirement and the services unemployed workers are now receiving.

The changes have their roots in federal law. After the economy tanked in 2009, Congress significantly extended the time unemployed workers could receive benefits but added language requiring those on the system for 26 weeks to make an appearance at a local unemployment office.

That proved to be such a motivator for moving people back into the workforce that Indiana lawmakers decided to make it part of the state unemployment system as well. In 2011, the General Assembly voted to give DWD the authority to require appearances by recipients. But that law doesn’t set a timetable for an appearance.

So Leonard authored House Bill 1344, which requires a Work One visit within four weeks of the start of benefits. That time line could still move, Leonard said, to ensure the DWD has time to notify recipients and schedule them for an appointment.

Another change expected in the Senate will exempt members of organized labor, who already receive similar jobs services from their unions. Some Democrats, concerned that exemption hadn’t already been added to the bill, voted no in the House. But it passed easily: 67-27.

Now the bill heads to the Senate, where it’s sponsored by Sen. Phil Boots, a Crawfordsville Republican who chairs the Pension and Labor Committee, which gives the legislation a good chance of becoming law.•

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Lesley Weidenbener covered the Statehouse for two decades. She is now IBJ’s managing editor.
 

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