2019 | Politics

WorkSource Montgomery Pushes Back on Council Criticism

Legislators said the agency wasn’t helping vulnerable workers

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WorkSource Montgomery CEO Ellie Giles

Photo courtesy of WorkSource Montgomery

WorkSource Montgomery is disputing allegations that it failed to provide adequate services to some of the county’s most vulnerable workers.

The Montgomery County Council criticized the agency for months before approving a bill on Tuesday that would allow them to hand workforce development responsibilities to other organizations.

Several council members said they repeatedly fielded complaints about WorkSource Montgomery from clients and officials with the state Department of Labor. The agency failed to meet performance goals, said Council Member Craig Rice, and to provide sufficient job training for low-skill residents.

But agency leaders pushed back on the criticism after the council vote.

Reaching the approximately 569,840 workers in Montgomery County takes time, effort and coordination, especially when helping the lowest-skill residents find jobs, said Ted Rose, chairman of the nonprofit WorkSource Montgomery.

It’s a difficult task with high expectations for success, both federally and locally, he added. The nonprofit’s performance is monitored by federal agencies that contribute funding and the Montgomery County Council, which privatized workforce development in 2015.

Since WorkSource Montgomery was created as the county’s first — and only — workforce development agency, leaders have had three years to coordinate what Rose estimated was millions of dollars’ worth of services.

“You have to understand that the county’s fiscal year 2019 budget included $139 million for workforce development through multiple agencies,” he said in a phone interview on Thursday. It’s a figure he’s repeated multiple times over the last seven months in hearings with the County Council, which unanimously approved a bill that allows it to designate an additional nonprofit or educational institution as an official workforce development provider.

Council President Nancy Navarro described the measure as a way to maintain “flexibility” over the county’s workforce development strategy. But in previous meetings, both she and Rice suggested that the county might not renew the WorkSource Montgomery contract if the agency didn’t make serious improvements.

Data from 2016 and 2017 showed that WorkSource Montgomery was failing to meet employment targets set by the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act, which allocates funding for local workforce development through state grants.

The Maryland Department of Labor also communicated specific concerns over poor customer service within the agency’s WIOA-funded adult and dislocated worker program, Council Member Will Jawando said at a council session on March 5.

In October 2018, the state conducted a site inspection and found that 42 employment files were deleted before a reporting deadline for WIOA compliance, Jawando added. The Department of Labor found that the majority of those files seemed to involve clients who hadn’t achieved stable employment.

The mistakes cast serious doubt on the agency’s handling of workforce development, Council Member Craig Rice said in a Sept. 12 committee meeting on the bill. But after the council passed its legislation, Rose joined CEO Ellie Giles in defending the nonprofit.

WorkSource Montgomery had a good working relationship with previous council administrations, Rose said, but struggled after new members came in with significantly different expectations for the agency.

The council’s focus seemed to move toward lower-skilled workers, Rose added, and the agency had to adjust to meet those concerns.

“I think time is the key point here,” he said. “We’ve made tremendous progress over the past three and a half years, but at least two of them were spent getting the operation up and running. And now we’ve tried to shift quickly to meet those shifting priorities, but it takes time to really prepare the workforce.”

Since the state met with the agency, Giles said, WorkSource Montgomery hired a new contractor to administer services at two WIOA-funded job centers and boosted its outreach in low-income areas to reach more vulnerable workers.

The only files deleted by the agency, she added, were connected to clients who did not use workforce development services after they switched to WorkSource Montgomery.

Giles also took issue with some of the council’s specific criticisms. One that particularly bothered her was a concern Jawando raised in March that the agency wasn’t doing enough to assist formerly incarcerated inmates from the Montgomery County Correctional Facility.

Before workforce development in the county was privatized, the detention center earned nationwide praise for a taxpayer-funded, in-house job center that helped inmates compose resumes and practice interview skills.

“There is some concern from me and, I think, other colleagues of mine about the level of service that’s happening with this very vulnerable population,” Jawando said. Service in the jail changed slightly since WorkSource Montgomery took over, he added, and inmates were no longer receiving career coaching behind bars.

At the same meeting in March, Giles acknowledged that inmates were now primarily receiving workforce services after their release from prison. But that in-house job training program only stopped after the county stopped funding from the program, she said in a phone interview Wednesday afternoon.

“When WorkSource Montgomery took over and the funding stopped, I personally applied for a grant so we could continue the program,” Giles continued. “Then that grant went out, and I personally went to the county and asked, ‘How can we make this work?’”

The funding was never renewed, she said, and WorkSource Montgomery tried to bridge the gap by connecting former inmates to job training after their release.

Criticism of the agency underscores the complexity of WIOA funding, which trickles down to local agencies through state-administered grants funded by the U.S. Department of Labor. The federal government sets strict metrics for WIOA-funded clients, Giles said, including a requirement that they find stable employment within six to eight weeks.

Those expectations make it difficult to use WIOA funding on some of the county’s most at-need residents, including unskilled workers and former inmates who might not be ready to find a job within two months.

In response, Giles and Rose said, the agency has been independently funding what they call H.I.R.E. Centers — short for Helping Individuals Reach Employment — to serve residents who might not be WIOA-eligible.

Two permanent H.I.R.E. Centers have been established in Silver Spring and the detention center, Giles said, and the agency organizes regular H.I.R.E. events at community centers across the county.

“They’re very community-centered, and we started them immediately after we learned there was a concern,” she said. “We wanted a place where the question wasn’t, ‘Are you eligible?’ but rather, ‘How can we help you?’”

It’s still unclear whether the council will choose to designate another nonprofit or educational institution as a new workforce development agency for Montgomery County. WorkSource Montgomery is going through its own transition as Giles prepares to leave the agency by the end of the year to start her own company.

The board is searching for her replacement, she said, and she’s committed to continuing with the agency as a consultant if needed.

“Again, this is my baby,” Giles said. “I love WorkSource Montgomery, and I’m extremely proud of what we’ve been able to do as an organization.”