Employment support for disabled NC workers ends

lbonner@newsobserver.comOctober 9, 2013 

Hundreds of people with disabilities who are training for jobs or have assistants working alongside them stayed home Wednesday because federal funding for their employment programs has run out.

The state Department of Health and Human Services sent letters to 140 agencies that run supportive employment services Tuesday telling them to stop work immediately because there’s no federal grant money left to pay their contracts. The order came at about the same time that DHHS announced it would stop enrolling families in the program that helps infants, children and their mothers buy food. North Carolina is believed to be the first state to cut off WIC benefits.

There may be more to come, depending on how long the federal shutdown lasts. Counties were told last week to think about how they can meet critical needs if the money for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, known in the state as Work First, and a federal grant that helps pay for a variety of social services including child care for low-income families runs out.

Julie Henry, a spokeswoman for DHHS, the agency that passes on the grant money, said agency officials and the state budget office are working out the details on how long money will last for each program.

For each grant, “we have to look at what money is on hand and when do we have to stop,” she said. “We’ll send out guidance as soon as we can.”

So far, the official notices have come abruptly and forced swift decisions.

Brian Toomey, CEO of Piedmont Health in Carrboro, said his agency had only four hours notice to prepare for the WIC shutdown.

“This will have a devastating impact on women, infant and young children who badly need these services,” he said in a statement.

Though North Carolina is the first state known to end WIC enrollment, most states will soon have to do the same, said Sheri Steisel, senior federal affairs counsel with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

End dates for programs will vary depending on state law, how the programs are administrated and whether states decide to put in their own money to support them, she said. For states that do spend their own money, there’s no guarantee they’ll be reimbursed.

The state budget office told state agencies last week that no state money will be used to make up for lost federal money.

Agencies that run employment programs for the disabled had an afternoon to tell its workers and those enrolled about the shutdown.

At Easter Seals/UCP, the shutdown affects about 150 Easter Seals/UCP employees in the state who are paid with federal money, 618 people with disabilities who rely on support workers at their jobs and 52 people in job training, said Fred Waddle, the organization's chief compliance and policy adviser.

Some agencies have decided to continue working even though they were told to stop.

“The ones that can afford to will keep going,” said Lisa Poteat, the ARC of North Carolina’s interim executive director. The ARC runs employment programs in Wilmington and Asheville that it will continue to run despite the shutdown order.

A “double-whammy” hits the economy when programs shut down, Poteat said. Not only are the “employment specialists” furloughed, but seven to 12 people each specialist works with may lose their jobs because they don’t have on-site assistance.

“We can’t stand down and have people possibly lose their jobs,” she said.

How the agency will pay for the work is still undecided, Poteat said. Since the services are paid with a mix of state and federal money, the hope is that state portion will be used to pay, she said.

Bonner: 919-829-4821

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