Extra Support Helps Welfare-to-Work Program Succeed
By Kavan Peterson, Staff Writer
Valderas, a single mother of three, had just relocated from Tennessee and planned to go on welfare until she could make ends meet. Without a car or someone to take care of her children - especially the youngest, Jaime, who suffered from cerebral palsy - Valderas didn't think getting a job was an option.
But instead of filling out public assistance forms at FIA, the state welfare agency, Valderas, 28, interviewed for a job at Cascade Engineering.
Cascade, a plastics manufacturing plant in Grand Rapids, has become one of Michigan's most touted welfare-to-work employers.
Valderas started working at Cascade the next day making interior car door panels. The FIA paid for her childcare and provided transportation for the first 90 days through a nonprofit agency called Angel Wings.
The reason she still works at the plastics manufacturing plant today, said Valderas, is because Joyce Bosscher, her social worker, was based at Cascade Engineering, and was available on a day-to-day basis to help with everything from buying her first house to arranging medical leave to care for her son.
"Joyce has been there for me since day one," said Valderas. "Every time something goes wrong and I want to give up, Joyce is there to tell me something positive. I never would have made it without her."
Michigan has reduced its welfare rolls by nearly 70 percent since Congress passed the landmark welfare reform act of 1996 by helping welfare recipients like Valderas find jobs, and by providing essential services like childcare to make sure they keep them.
But the Grand Rapids office has gone a step further by opening a branch at Cascade Engineering staffed by two caseworkers who are responsible for hiring and retaining welfare-to-work employees.
Cascade currently employs 96 people in its "Welfare-to-Career" program. The turnover rate for these employees has been under five percent for the past year, lower than the average of 15 percent for Cascade's 750 production employees.
Candidates for the program are referred through Michigan's Work First! job placement agency. Bosscher interviews each applicant to assess their readiness to start working, screening out about 15 percent.
Nearly all the applicants to the program are single mothers, so childcare is the most common service that Bosscher helps with. Most recipients don't have cars, so the FIA provides free transportation for the first 90 days. After three months have passed, the FIA gives them $1,200 toward buying a car.
The program is financed largely by the federal welfare reform act passed by Congress in 1996. One of the hallmarks of the legislation was the flexibility it gave state and local welfare agencies to spend federal dollars, enabling providers like the Grand Rapids FIA to increase funding for employment support services.
Randy Koekkoek, Bosscher's supervisor, also has $40,000 in discretionary funds that she can tap to help clients pay for things like emergency car repairs, a missed utility bill, or temporary housing to escape domestic abuse.
On a day-to-day basis, Bosscher reviews her clients' end-of-shift reports to keep track of tardiness and absences. Supervisors are required to notify Bosscher of any work-related problems by e-mail, so she can intervene before anyone's job is jeopardized.
"Her job is retention, retention, retention," said Kent County FIA Director Andrew Zylstra. "When I meet with Joyce, I tell her whatever it takes to keep that employee on the job, it's her job to do it."
Having an onsite social worker offers great advantages over the traditional system where recipients go to a centralized office and meet a social worker who typically handles 150-180 cases, said Zylstra. Recipients don't have to worry about missing work or arranging transportation to get benefits like Food Stamps and Medicaid.
During their first week at Cascade, all employees spend over 20 hours in orientation workshops that teach job and social skills.
Welfare-to-career employees start on the plant floor making plastic products like office furniture, trashcans and automobile parts. Cascade offers them money-management courses and computer training, and they are eligible to receive $2,000 a year for educational activities, like taking night classes or working toward a GED.
Despite all the services and opportunities that the state can provide to help people become self-sufficient, the greatest obstacles are sometimes emotional or personal problems that require one-on-one help, Bosscher said.
"I can see so much improvement in my clients lives, not just because they're getting a pay check every week, but when they're becoming self sustained and actually starting to set goals," she said.
At the end of October, Bosscher passed up an early retirement offer from the state to continue her job at Cascade.
"I've worked for the state 28 years and this is the first time that I've felt that I've truly made a difference in peoples' lives," said Bosscher.
In the first installment of a two-part profile of Cascade Engineering, Stateline.org looks at the history of the Welfare-to-Career partnership.