• 59°

Agency merger worries workers

The Associated Press

The 4,000 employees of the Ohio Bureau of Employment Services and the Department of Human Services are waiting on the Legislature to shape the merger, and some are worried their jobs may be left out.

Monday, October 04, 1999

The 4,000 employees of the Ohio Bureau of Employment Services and the Department of Human Services are waiting on the Legislature to shape the merger, and some are worried their jobs may be left out. Gov. Bob Taft promised during his election campaign last year to streamline government.

Much of the agencies’ work will be shifted to the state’s 88 counties. Layoffs at the state agencies may be avoided, but staff reductions through early retirements and buyouts are likely.

That hurts, said Bruce Wyngaard of the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association.

”We’re trying to improve our system and basically, we’re told by a new administration that it’s being given to somebody else.”

Workers at state agencies around the nation are feeling a similar crunch, said Jack Tweedle, director of child and family services for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Changes in the welfare system – limiting benefits and forcing recipients to look for work – have undermined the logic of having separate agencies for welfare and job placement. But combining two institutions with different ways of doing things can be a challenge.

”Often there’s a reluctance to share jobs,” Tweedle said. ”It’s a real challenge for the combined agency to develop a unified culture.”

Senate President Richard Finan has seen previous attempts to merge various state agencies meet with resistance from both public employees and agency administrators.

”Some of the problems in trying to do this in the past, why we never got off the dime, was the prospect of turf wars,” said Finan, R-Cincinnati.

How the work for the merged agency – to be called the Department of Job and Family Services – will be performed is not yet known. Teams of agency planners and lawmakers are studying its structure, and the Legislature will have to create the new agency in state law.

The work going to the counties is expected to be split up between county employees and state workers at the county level.

The Legislature is working against a July 1 deadline. That’s when new federal rules governing welfare take effect, and Taft and legislative leaders believe it’s the perfect time for the merger.

Seventeen states have submitted plans to the U.S. Department of Labor for complying with the new rules, and all of the states must have plans completed by April. Nine of the 17 states have been given permission to begin the transition early.

Even without a merger, some changes would be necessary. Congress in 1998 passed the Workforce Investment Act, which consolidates about 60 federal jobs programs into block grants to the states. It transfers both money and decision-making authority from Washington to state and local communities.

The changes resulted from a dramatic drop in welfare recipients nationwide. In Ohio, the welfare rolls have been reduced from an all-time high of 748,717 in March 1992 to 251,735 in August.

In 1997, at then Gov. George Voinovich’s urging and buoyed by a strengthening economy, the Legislature limited the amount of time recipients could get benefits to three years in a five-year period. The first group of recipients will be dropped from the rolls in October 2000 – three months after the merger is to be completed.

Under the new rules, each of Ohio’s counties will be required to have a ”career center” that combines training, employment services, unemployment insurance and adult education and retraining programs. The state is trying to provide as much flexibility to the counties as possible, given Ohio’s mix of urban, suburban and rural counties.

”That’s really at the heart of our strategy,” OBES Administrator James Mermis said. Although the state has held up Montgomery County’s one-stop program as an example of how to make the transformation successful, the difficult part of the merger has been convincing counties that the state will not dictate all the rules, said Jacqueline Romer-Sensky, director of Human Services.

”I don’t think any one model fits all the counties or fits all the job markets that are out there,” she said. ”We’re not trying to force people into the (Montgomery County) model.”

Reps. Bill Harris, R-Ashland, and John Barnes, D-Cleveland, have been charged by Speaker Jo Ann Davidson with providing legislative input to the merger.

”The speaker has not given me a specific deadline, though a sense of urgency in my mind exists,” Harris said. ”There are lots of things that have to take place to meet that (July 1) deadline.”

The OCSEA, which represents about 1,800 Employment Services workers and about 1,100 at Human Services, is worried that the Legislature may be more aggressive than Taft about downsizing.

While both the administration and Davidson said they believe any staff reductions can be accomplished through early retirement and employee buyouts, layoffs have not been ruled out.

”It concerns me that we might have a governor who has a very specific plan in mind with respect to his vision of this merger and what’s really driving it and the Legislature, which might have a different one,” Wyngaard said.

Davidson, R-Reynoldsburg, acknowledged that one of the goals of the Republican-dominated Legislature is smaller government, but she added that welfare reform is more about helping the recipients become self-sufficient.

”If you’re interested in downsizing government, in streamlining government, then you try to look at what functions can be legitimately merged,” Davidson said. ”I see this much more importantly as better serving the clients of both of the departments. I’ve certainly been very serious about doing a good job on welfare reform.”

One lawmaker would like to see something take place that’s entirely different.

Sen. Linda Furney says Taft is merging the wrong departments. She said it would make more sense to merge the job-creating Department of Development with Employment Services.

Furney, D-Toledo, says there simply is not enough time to properly merge Employment Services and Human Services. She said the existing development programs would fit what Employment Services is trying to do.

Taft says the merger will proceed as planned. However, he emphasized the merger is only the beginning of a changing work force development philosophy.

”Beyond this merger, we’ll be working on a strategy to coordinate all of the departments and agencies that are involved in work force development and training and education,” he said.