EXPERT UPDATE - Keeping Employment First

The following is the complete interview led by Kate Brady from the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities (GCDD) on employment for people with disabilities with Nick Perry, DeKalb Community Services Board; Melissa Rutland, Diversified Enterprises; and Doug Crandell, Institute on Human Development & Disability at UGA; Project Director, Advancing Employment TA Center. The panel spoke about supported employment, how state budget cuts are affecting programs and how advocacy plays an important role to continue keeping Employment First.


Complete Transcript:

Kate Brady: Thanks so much for being here folks, I’m Kate Brady. I’m the Deputy Director at the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities, and we are here today to do an expert panel interview with these fine folks who’ve agreed to share with us their insights regarding employment for people with disabilities. So I’m going to let folks introduce themselves and then we’ll dive in to some questions.

Melissa Rutland:  Hi, I’m Melissa Rutland. I’m with Diversified Enterprises out of Tifton, Georgia. I’ve been in the field for a little over 20 years and very much involved with employment in the southern part of the State of Georgia we have a small group but we’re powerful. That’s what I like to say. So thank you for inviting me.

Kate Brady: Thank you very much. Nick, are you willing to go next? 

Nick Perry: Sure. I’m Nick Perry. I am the Director of DD Community and Day Services at the DeKalb [Community Service Board]. I’ve worked unemployment policy, I’ve worked at [Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency] implementing programs for supported employment across the state, and working to transform an antiquated system at DeKalb County now.

Kate Brady: Thank you Nick. And last but not least, Mr. Crandell?

Doug Crandell: Thank you Kate. I’m Doug Crandell. I work at the University of Georgia at Institute on Human Development and Disability (IHDD) [designated as a University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities]. I’ve been there about 10 years and run the Advancing Employment training center, and prior to that worked as a provider for 20 years and worked with the US Department of Labor Unemployment First initiatives. Happy to be here, thank you.

Kate Brady: Thank you. Well, as you can see folks, we have a broad array of experts and varying perspectives to hear from and GCDD is so grateful to each of you for sharing your time and for the important work that you’re doing around the State. Our belief is that employment is a critical part of people’s lives and that the public system and communities and employers should engage to support any person with a disability who wants to work.

I’m going to jump right into kind of the obvious context of the times we are living in, strange as they are, and recognizing that there have been tremendous budget cuts in Georgia, which has resulted in individuals losing state-funded family support and specifically employment express services.  I’d thought I’d first go to Melissa and Nick and hear from you about how you’ve seen the impact of these cuts play out in your provider organizations. So Nick, if you would, please share some of your insights on the recent cuts. 

Nick Perry: I’ve seen quite a bit. I’ve seen individuals who have recently gained employment lose the opportunity to have extended supports and services funded as result. I’ve seen providers who are unable, or possibly unwilling, but definitely find it difficult to support individuals, specifically newer individuals, new clients who seek employment. I’ve seen the creation of a new waiting list through [Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities]’ competitive integrated employment program that is allegedly replacing Employment Express. Those funds are very limited, so once they’re depleted there’s a pending list the individuals will be placed on. I guess on a positive note, I’ve seen individuals who are still out there seeking employment who’ve actually gained employment. I’ve seen providers who are willing to continue supporting those individuals despite the loss of funding. And I’m seeing a need for a different funding model for our state. It’s failed. It hasn’t worked long term. It’s obviously not working right now so I think it’s time to explore different options. 

Kate Brady: I’m aware that you’ve mentioned a different funding model and you come to us with a broad set of experiences across the different systems. Is there more you can say about the funding model and the way you would like to see it change?

Nick Perry: Well, I think to your point we’ve had a couple of discussions. I would defer to Doug because he has actually been on the ground in these different states to see what he thinks would work here in Georgia. But definitely, what I can say is that the business models of providers would necessarily change if the funding model changes. So you know we can’t – we’ve got to stop blaming providers and putting all the emphasis on us, right? If we start at the top, we’ll necessarily change. We’re businesses.

Kate Brady: Yes indeed. Well, I certainly want to hear from Doug on that and I wonder if before we take a little bit more of a bird’s eye view if, Melissa, if there are experiences you had at Diversified regarding the recent cuts that you’d like to reflect on 

Melissa Rutland: I think you know what Nick said is spot on. Some of the things that I see are family supports, people that were seeing state funded services, a lot of times family supports are the only support that they’re eligible for. And so when they lost that, then you have people that are at risk because even though it was very limited as to the family support that they received it helped them. And so, I worry about them because they’re at risk now because they no longer have that funding. And then you know with the change in Employment Express, you have to think about agencies that received VR referrals. The Employment Express, that was so hopeful for agencies because once someone was placed and utilized all the DR funding, they knew they had Employment Express to help sustain that person. So I wonder about agencies that are not in the financial shape and the security that our agency is in which we’ve been doing it for years and so you know we kind of can carry those people.  

 Most of the folks that we have are in long term employment and so it’s just maintenance. But you think your contract says that if you place someone after that you’ve lost DR funding, that you’ll cover them for the lifetime of that job with two contacts per month. And while an agency like mine might be able to do it, a newer agency that’s just getting started is not going to be able to do that. Or a CSB or service center that is trying to switch over to community based services, they’re not going to be able to do that because they’re already in a bind trying to take on these new opportunities for employment for people. So it’s going to be a struggle and I see that as kind of setting back employment. But we’re making some good headway in the past couple of years and I see that this – and it just happened with COVID - but I can see its going to set back employment. I think it will.

Kate Brady: Thank you. So, Doug, I certainly want to hear from you about cuts, but particularly interested in your thoughts related to Nick’s points around the funding model and the manner in which we need to see leadership at the state level to put forward a funding model that aligns with our stated values of employment.

Doug Crandell: Every time we have confusion and uncertainty, you’re going to have delays and lose momentum. I think what’s difficult, at least as I’ve been reflecting on this, and I think many people have in terms of the economy – we can use that as an excuse forever. Yes we have to have state cuts, but why you would cut employment supports is beyond me. 

There are models without going into the weeds - though Tennessee is a great example above us - we have still a bifurcated system in Georgia. The Home and Community Based Services waiver in Tennessee (known as Employment Community First, the CHOICES waiver), again a state in the southeast, they’re living with the same things we are, and we can revamp those waivers. They have to be revamped for a new generation of young people, for providers that are trying to change over. There has to be an incentive to do that. There has to be flexibility. Some of those services are benefits counseling inside the waiver, counseling with families and someone who may have been going to a sheltered workshop for several decades, providers – if we’re encouraging folks to leave places, we’ve got to be able to reimburse people for that time.

On the flip side of that, since I’ve worked in Georgia as a provider, we also need fidelity, right? Right now it’s the state, it’s the provider, and it’s difficult to achieve Employment First, Community First for people, if we can’t come to the table and recognize the true spirit of what the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) asks us to do – and that is to totally collaborate and prioritize those folks with significant disabilities, getting evidence base services. So, those models exist. The will has to be there to take those steps. We’ve had some missteps. In 2008, the state did the exact same thing during that economic downturn and wiped out state dollars for unemployment, both on mental health and ID/DD. So we needed to learn from that. This is a tremendous opportunity I think, as Nick has pointed out, to get serious about how we’re going to fund true supports for people. 

Kate Brady: One of the things we’ve talked at [GCDD] a lot about is the reality that some positive changes have happened in people’s lives, or at least models of changes for individualized supports as opposed to congregate settings. And that with the renewal of the NOW and COMP waiver in Georgia there may be opportunities to align our funded services with those more individualized models that we’ve learned how to be because we’ve had to. 

The will to collaborate as WIOA intends across all of these systems and to do so in a substantial and consistent manner. And also the will of the people that we are charged with serving, who overwhelmingly and consistently report an interest in working. So to that end I want to ask each of you your thoughts on the role of advocacy and advocates, by which we mean political legislative advocacy and the voice of people with disabilities in moving the needle forward on unemployment and speaking to the choices made regarding recent cuts. 

Melissa, what role do you see for advocacy?

Melissa Rutland: With our agency, we really support advocacy for people that want to be a voice and want to be heard. I think from an agency perspective, we have a responsibility to support them and make things happen because a lot of times if you don’t support people things are not going to happen. I think that they need to stay the course, they need to continue to advocate whenever possible with new and inventive ways to advocate. And keep employment first. That way when funding is opened back up and things get better that the people in power think of employment first. I think that it’s really important. We’ve gotten several people through employment that we have highlighted in and encourage them to advocate and be involved in groups to advocate. So that needs to be first and foremost.

Nick Perry: I think the disability advocacy community has a tremendous role to play moving forward. I would suggest being more vocal and more visible. I would suggest asking for tangibles, such as eliminating the waiting list. Whether it’s NOW and COMP as we know it now or some of the more innovative waivers as Doug mentioned, but eliminating the waiting list. That would open funding for supported employment services. So keep the presser on. We’ve made some ground over the last few years. We’ve lost a bit here recently but we know this community has never been given anything, honestly. It’s always been a fight, so we have to keep fighting.

Kate Brady: Yes, that’s powerful. Powerful insight. Thank you. I want to pivot just for a second to the [Technical Assistance] Center. Doug, the events, the employment TA center, Institute for Human Development and Disability where you are. I recognize that your work of supporting provider transformation has likely been impacted by the pandemic and just see if there’s anything about those approaches that you could share with us and how they’ve changed.

Doug Crandell: I think what you mostly see is all of us trying to figure out how we can be supportive in a virtual way and not to let all of those reasons we already mentioned slow us down. At the same time I’ve seen some provider agencies, know they’re struggling to cover all types of services and supports, so you do lose the momentum there. That’s part of it. But the virtual guidance, what I’ve been really encouraged by is as we’ve rolled out the Association of Community Rehabilitation Educators ( ACRE)customized employment training where we’re in our start of our third cohort next week, just the community of practice that is alive and well and wonderful people. We have 43 folks who have graduated now just in 2020. That goes through the spring of 2021 with really robust communities of practice (COP), true communities of practices, not just a name. Those are both virtual and on the Advancing Employment’s website. So we are really problem-solving specific situations whether that’s figuring out ideal conditions of employment for a very specific job seeker, working with families, involving vocational rehabilitation staff as well. In September of 2020, we had our first joint community of practice with the people who have finished the ACRE course along with the GVRA staff and we’re going to continue to open those up. I am seeing folks really be creative.  

I know we’ve talked about some of the barriers, and there are some. Our customized employment efforts have to be mirrored again in the funding mechanisms and we don’t have those aligned quite yet. There is tremendous interest in teleworking, supported self-employment, micro enterprise…we’ll have to continue to focus on that so that job seekers at this place have those options. We needed that prior to COVID, we really need it now because wage employment, showing up some place 4, 5, 8 hours a day, may not be the fit for everyone so we have to mirror that. 

The creativity and the dedication is exciting to me. So while we have those obstacles,  I really do believe it’s being much more purposeful about gathering the people who have the passion, the people who have the skill sets, who want to implement that in a way that really makes a difference. 

Then I would just say I guess to advocates as well, whether we’re providers, self advocates, family members, we’ve got to get away from advocating programmatically. We have to advocate from an economic standpoint. That is a much stronger point of view. It resonates into the points that have been made. That is a tangible piece. Then the final one would be we have a wonderful benefit navigating system in Georgia. But we could bolster that with another tangible option by expanding that in waivers and finding the money to make sure that Georgia is a Disability 101 state. So there is a lot we can do to remove some of those barriers.  

Kate Brady: Well I want to follow up for our viewers because thankfully I think GCDD has a pretty broad audience and while I think the three of us know what Disability Benefits 101 is I don’t know that everybody does. Maybe you could say a little bit more about that and a little bit more about how folks can get connected with the community of practice.

Doug Crandell: Disability 101 - the best thing for any advocate of any type to do is just Google that. But a state can pay into the DB 101 program and have that tailored for the state. That allows someone to really not have to have all the credentials for benefit counseling but a family member, a self advocate, can kind of get in there and look at the real impact that going to work makes. We know there is so much myth. Our programs can only do so much. There is a waiting list for that service as well. 

So, Disability 101 is something I think now nine states have tailored. Most of those states are serious about Employment First, prioritizing that. It’s reflected in how they’re gone after some state dollars and how they’re modified their funding streams as well. DB 101. Go ahead and take a look.

Kate Brady: I am super excited about the possibility of Georgia having DB 101. Of the reality that we have tremendous resources here for self employment and we’ve gotten some great guidance regarding supported self employment and I think now is the time to embed that option in our service systems. From an advocacy perspective, it makes sense to pitch employment as an economic benefit, and economic development tool rather than a program that we want to support. I wanted to see if, Melissa, you wanted to respond to that and, Nick, if you had any related thoughts after Melissa.

Melissa Rutland: Well I think that’s a lot of what we do when we attend (for our agencies) chambers meetings, HR meetings, is we talk about the benefit it is to the community for people to become employed. I think that the more we educate potential employers on the benefits that a community or a state or a country receives at large from people being employed the more we will find employment doors that are going to open for people. Not just big corporations, but little mom and pop shops. I think if they understand that then those doors do open a lot better. 

Nick Perry: I think, additionally, when we’re making the case to legislators we need to explain that there is a benefit to the taxpayers. When individuals go to work – and I don’t know the numbers right now, the most current date, I don’t have it – but for instance if for every dollar we spend to support an individual to go to work there is a return of let’s say $84 or $100, whatever. In actuality it behooves us all to fund these services. It’s much cheaper to fund these than something like a community day program, right? 

Kate Brady: Currently, we fund community day programs at a total rate exponentially higher than our funding for employment. So great starting place to be starting there. I think you’ve all hinted at which is not only does employment benefit the broader community and that it’s a wise investment to support people with disabilities in having and keeping and growing in their careers but that we all kind of have a part to play, right? There are systems alignment issues, there are individual advocacy opportunities, there are provider transformation resources, and all under the umbrella of the very powerful worker’s investment opportunity.

I wonder if there are particular calls to action you might have for an audience regarding how you’d like to see them engage in supporting unemployment for people with disabilities. I’ll just go around and maybe for a change start with Doug and go to Nick and then Melissa.

Doug Crandell: We can advocate for changes to our NOW and COMP waivers, we can make sure that we’re cross walking what the WIOA is really focused on with other state partners. States that have really been serious about unemployment first also lead job development from the top. Interestingly in Georgia the Department of Corrections has taken a very strong lead on hiring folks post-incarceration. We don’t have that same supply chain focus from our ID/DD agency and our DR agency. There is a lot you can lead on there. In other words if you want our business – because those are two large bureaucracies – and you want us to sign a contract or paper or cleaning or tires for the vans, then you meet with our job developers. This is what we're serious about. 

There is a lot of leading that can be done there and we just have not marshaled that. I think that’s a real opportunity where everyone can come together and say “how can we send that message concretely, succinctly” and then make it easier for Nick, Melissa, myself, and others who are listening, to job develop because there is a footprint that is being leveraged. 

Kate Brady: Thank you. Nick? Calls to action that you’d like to offer? 

Nick Perry: I would ask all the viewers to join an advocacy organization whether it’s GCDD or Georgia APSE or Georgia Arc, any of them, all of them. That would definitely help to unify and amplify our voices. I would ask that people utilize social media. A lot of movements are starting on social media now so like, post, repost, share information about supported employment, information about the ongoings in this state around the state. Keep the presser on. Keep the pressure on. It’s going to be important when you speak to your legislator or someone that you have the adequate information and data. Information disseminates and is important, so utilize social media for that reason – if nothing else. 

In my role, I’ve been helping our parent auxiliary group, our siblings, get in touch with these different organizations, take part in town halls and focus groups and that sort of thing. My family, people in my personal life, everyone no matter what your walk of life is it’s important to indicate the people within your sphere of influence. Everyone needs to know what’s going on, what the barriers are, what the challenges are, what the best practices are, and perhaps that way we can tackle them in a united way. 

Kate Brady: Thank you. That’s very helpful. Melissa, what would your call to action be for our viewers?

Melissa Rutland: I think we should all be advocating for employment at every opportunity that we have. One of the things that we should do is get into the school system. As an agency provider, you can make that relationship with your school system and get in there at 8th and 9th grades and start talking to the teachers and setting up meetings with the parents to talk about how we realize your child is young right now but the next five years are going to fly by. Start talking about employment because that is the first step to a meaningful life with someone. That is the first step for independence, for marriage, for natural support, for friends. It just opens the door for everyone to have a meaningful life. It’s our responsibility I think to get out there and advocate at every opportunity that we have to push it forward.

Kate Brady: Thank you. Well I think that’s the perfect note to end on, these calls to action, and we hope that you will join us and make a commitment to engage.

 Read the entire Making a Difference - Fall 2020: