The pandemic sent Wisconsin’s unemployment rate soaring from 3.1 percent in March to 12 percent in May. Anthony Snyder, CEO of the Fox Valley Workforce Development Board, says the upheaval has created many challenges for his organization and the people it serves. Even as the region’s jobs centers remain closed (most likely through August, at least), FVWDB is helping those who have been laid off, including creating a quick and simple form people can fill out to get assistance from a career planner.
What are you seeing in terms of people reaching out and demand for your organization’s services?
Anthony Snyder: As the COVID-19 crisis became real, three of my five job centers closed immediately. As the calls to the Department of Workforce Development’s Unemployment Insurance telephone lines spiked, most of the local DWD staff were pulled on to deal with those calls. We continued to keep a very small number of individuals answering telephone calls in Fond du Lac and Menasha.
At least at the time of this interview, most of the calls have been about delays to unemployment insurance payments. UI, along with the $600 in extra pandemic aid, meant most people weren’t thinking about their job search until these benefits ran out toward the end of July.
The important thing to remember is that the job centers and the staff there assist customers with filing for UI, but that’s not our primary purpose. Our purpose is to help individuals with skills assessments, resume updates, a job search strategy and possibly retraining for a new job. Thanks to the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), we have dollars available to do all of this and more — including support payments for child care, mileage to and from campus and even your first set of steel-toed boots or welding gear. We want to find those who are unemployed, underemployed or unhappily employed and help them find a dream job to take care of themselves and their families.
How do you, as an organization, begin to address unemployment that’s risen so rapidly?
We receive grants from many sources, but our single largest source of funding comes from the WIOA. This legislation, enacted in 2016, flows from the U.S. Department of Labor to the Wisconsin DWD and is then divided up among the 11 workforce boards in Wisconsin using a formula of unemployment, poverty rates and population.
Since I came to the FVWDB in spring 2016, we’ve seen double-digit percentage cuts every year to our WIOA funding. Our area has had slow growth, poverty rates much lower than other regions and record-breaking low unemployment numbers. We had no choice but to close the Oshkosh Job Center in the fall of 2019, and I’ve had to reduce both overall staffing and open hours at our centers. We know our WIOA allocation for our new fiscal year, which began July 1, and it was cut again by double digits. Clearly, the allocations were done long before COVID-19.
The next round of COVID-19 relief, which includes the big money for workforce development, has stalled in D.C. Without this, we will (receive) reduced dollars and barely enough to serve the individuals currently enrolled. The potentially thousands of new dislocated workers will be dumped onto waiting lists for training, and with an inability to bring on more career planners, the ability to serve these individuals in a meaningful way will not be possible.
What sectors and types of jobs have been hit hardest?
We believe that most of those who will end up being permanently unemployed are those in the restaurant, retail, hospitality and tourism areas. Health care is experiencing layoffs as hospitals had to shelve a lot of non-emergency procedures for most of the spring. As this pandemic hit us during the school year, I have no doubt there are a slew of bus drivers, teachers’ aides, cafeteria workers and janitorial staff whose services were likely cut short. Individuals in the health and beauty industries were also hit pretty hard.
So far, we haven’t heard of too many large manufacturing layoffs. The real challenge is the WARN (Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification) process seems to have completely broken down and is not being enforced. We normally would learn of layoffs through this process or by people stopping in at our job centers. With the centers closed, we’ve resorted to the online form on our website.
When people fill out the outreach form on your website, what’s the process like for them?
We wanted it to be super simple. All we’re asking for is name, phone or email, county of residence and the name of their last employer. The form arrives in our office as an email. Within one business day, that information is relayed to a workforce professional who reaches out to discuss our services. If the world was operating as normal, we’d have done a face-to-face meeting with a paper enrollment form. These days, we are doing a lot of telephone calls, emails and good, old-fashioned snail mail.
Unemployment is hitting people at all levels of professions. How do they begin to start over?
Your local workforce board knows the industry sectors. Every two years, we put together a general plan of action that includes labor market information that’s localized in our region. In Workforce Development Area 4, which includes the counties of Calumet, Fond du Lac, Green Lake, Waupaca, Waushara and Winnebago, we have a very strong manufacturing base, and we expect that to continue. We also have great need of some health care workers, IT and logistics.
While we do fund individuals to go back for additional training, we want to ensure we are training people for the jobs of tomorrow that pay a living wage and come with benefits you’d expect from a professional position. We encourage people to begin this journey by contacting their local American Job Center. We can begin with a skills assessment and determine if you need additional skills or just a refreshed resume and a job search plan. Our WIOA Career Planners will be with you every step of the way, checking in and providing the support you need to be successful. Many people think this sounds “too good to be true,” but it’s probably one of the most successful yet unknown programs Washington has ever created.