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John Florez: Is Workforce Services too big to fail?

Published: Saturday, Sept. 15 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

In this Aug. 19, 2010 file photo, an unemployed Los Angeles Unified School administrator writes down a letter to request an extension on his unemployment benefits at the Glendale Workforce Services Center in Glendale, Calif.

Associated Press

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The Utah Department of Workforce Services, or DWS, has had more than its share of problems. It is an agency charged with meeting the state's employment needs, welfare for needy families and helping the unemployed in these tough economic times.

A 2009 legislative audit found DWS had made a $28.1 million error in entering Medicaid eligibility costs. That function had been transferred from the health department to DWS as a cost-saving move. In another instance, DWS employees released confidential information on about 1,300 supposedly illegal immigrants. Now, it is undergoing another legislative audit triggered by numerous complaints by staff being mistreated and threatened for having raised them. And advocates for the poor continue to raise concerns about the insensitive treatment clients receive.

The director has been lauded for managing DWS in an efficient and cost-saving way and was recently promoted to oversee the Governor's Office of Management and Budget to assure efficiency in state agencies.

DWS is charged with an enormous responsibility. It oversees such programs as Unemployment Insurance, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or TANF, childcare, training and managing a budget of $1.1 billion. DWS was created in 1997 to allow for a more seamless system in the delivery of services to its customers. It must comply with a myriad and often conflicting federal regulations that fund the majority of its programs. The agency has received several awards for meeting federally mandated goals.

The former department director had enjoyed good relations with the Legislature by trying to meet its directives and appears to share a similar attitude about public assistance for the needy, such as the case with the food stamp program. She says recipients should meet work requirements and the agency is prepared to assist them.

Somehow that seems difficult since even skilled workers are still seeking jobs. Is it possible that part of the problem the agency is experiencing might be due to the director's willingness to do more with less at the expense of quality of service?

The department is charged with managing a plethora of programs with multiple missions, thus diluting its core purpose of providing timely employment service and helping individuals obtain employment. Now, the Legislature is proposing to add housing to its portfolio, while the director continues to try to do more with less.

The complaints about the level of services now surfacing may also be the result of some legislators who show a lack of understanding about the struggle individuals and families are having in meeting the basic human needs — food, shelter and care for infants and children in today's economy. Some families are one illness away from being homeless.

Somewhere along the way, some lawmakers have forgotten the values Utahns hold dearly — families, caring for those in need and the dignity of every individual. Today, some view the condition that poor individuals now find themselves in is because of the choices they have made, and they should not "feed at the public trough." Until lawmakers begin to promulgate policies that solve the problems our state faces, especially in the tough times, DWS will continue to struggle helping those in need.

Legislators should make laws that measure outcomes rather than process and reflect the values of our people — giving assistance needed to become self sufficient while allowing people to maintain their dignity. Lawmakers ought to consider returning the TANF program to the Department of Human Services whose core purpose is more compatible with TANFs in assisting families with infants and children.

DWS is a key agency in meeting the economic and social challenges brought about by a changing economy and ought to have the support of our lawmakers to meet the needs of our people. DWS is not too big to fail.

A Utah native, John Florez has been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch, served as former Utah Industrial Commissioner and filled White House appointments, including Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor and Commission on Hispanic Education. Email him at jdflorez@comcast.net.

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