Ohio caseworkers to get bonuses for simply doing their jobs

By Maggie Thurber | for Ohio Watchdog

BONUS: Thanks to a recent bill, some county caseworkers will be eligible for a bonus if they help Ohio Works First participants find a job.

Ohio’s mid-biennium budget review bill will provide nice bonuses to caseworkers for simply doing their jobs.

A section in House Bill 483 established a new bonus program for county Job & Family Service caseworkers. It’s called the Ohio Works First Employment Incentive Pilot Program. Its purpose? Reward a county caseworker each time one of their OWF participants goes six months without a need for OWF benefits.

The pilot will run in five counties for three years and each county will get $50,000 to run the program and pay for the incentives.

OWF is the financial assistance portion of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program. It gives cash to eligible families for no more than 36 months. To be eligible, a family must have a dependent child, be working or participating in job training or education, or be involved in certain community service activities. The goal of OWF is “self-sufficiency, personal responsibility and employment.”

So if the whole point of OWF is to get people off welfare and into a position of self-sufficiency, why does the state need a bonus program for caseworkers who actually do their job and get clients to this non-dependent position?

Getting people off welfare and into a position where they can support themselves is a noble and appropriate goal, but isn’t that already the purpose of welfare programs? Many are only temporary, as the name TANF states, and are only supposed to be a safety net for a limited amount of time. They were never intended to be a permanent way of life for participants, though that is how some people treat them.

Since the pilot will only be available in five counties to start with, the Ohio Department of Job & Family Services gets to decide which counties will participate. ODJFS set the individual bonus amount at $300 for a single-parent household and $600 for a two-parent household. Any employee who helps the participant find work, from intake to exit, is eligible to share evenly in the individual bonus.

The bill also tasks ODJFS with implementing an evaluation system to rate individual caseworkers and county JFS departments on their success with helping participants get employment that allows them to get off welfare.

Maybe that’s a good thing. Most county JFS departments are unionized and don’t include performance appraisals. Union contracts usually reward employees based upon seniority — not on goals that are reached.

Of course, nothing in the bill ties the state evaluation system to pay or promotions. One can only wonder if unions were aware of the provision, or if they believed it would have no impact because it’s over and above anything they already negotiated for their members.

Will a cash incentive for social workers mean they will push participants out of the system before they’re actually ready? That was one legislator’s concern.

But the way the incentive is set up, a participant only has to be out of the OWF program for six months for the bonus to be awarded. OWF allows people to come back into the system if circumstances change.

The bill also requires the governor to establish a workgroup that will make proposals for getting people to stop relying upon JFS programs.

Again, a noble and appropriate goal. But if the state needs a new workgroup to make recommendations to get people off welfare, what have they been doing all along?

And what will happen to the incentive money the federal government pays out to states who improve their participation in the food stamp program? If Ohio is getting more people off the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program through these new efforts, will it cease to be eligible for a portion of the $12 million the federal government pays out annually?

There are even more questions:

  • Will the incentive program require federal approval and, if so, will the approval be granted?
  • Will counties accept a state evaluation system for their employees?
  • Will unions support or fight the evaluations and/or the incentive program?
  • After implementation, what will be the consequences of poor evaluations for caseworkers and county JFS departments?

Regardless of the answers, the bill is now law. Gov. John Kasich signed it June 16 and incentive payments will be made as soon as possible in state fiscal year 2015.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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