LANSING, MI — A state agency that helps people with disabilities get jobs is losing dozens of staff members to budget cuts, raising concerns about a loss of services.
A $20 million budget deficit has forced Michigan Rehabilitation Services to lay off about 26 employees. Another 16 Employment Service Interviewers, who technically work for the Unemployment Insurance Agency, lost their jobs. The layoffs are effective Sept. 28.
The layoffs impact the entire staff of Employment Service Interviewers, who work with small businesses and organizations to employ people with disabilities.
“This is a critical program that connects the dots between dedicated workers and businesses that want to hire them,” said Phil Patrick, executive director of SEIU Local 517M, which represents the ESI staff. “At a time when Michigan’s unemployment rate has gone up three months in a row, we believe these layoffs are simply unconscionable.”
Patrick appeared relieved to learn “it doesn’t appear it’s the wish of the Snyder administration that this program go away all together,” but said he’s concerned there won’t be a smooth transition for people with disabilities to continue receiving the employment services.
Gov. Rick Snyder has been criticized for cutting down on a program that promotes employment while constantly pitching the importance of job growth.
State employees are working quickly to try to fill the gaps and make sure that Michigan’s 1.3 million people with disabilities still get the services they need, said Jaye Porter, director of MRS.
“It’s not a service we can ignore, we just have to find another way to provide it,” she said.
The cuts sadden people who have benfited from MRS placements.
Allen Strozewski said he owes his success to an MRS employee who helped him land a job at a passport processing center in the Lansing area.
“She saw potential in me that even I didn’t see at that time,” Strozewski said. “She pushed me to learn new skills and challenged me in different ways.”
The service has made other cuts beyond the layoffs, reducing its budget and cutting back on travel, supplies and other expenses.
A combination of increased expenses and funding cutbacks led to the layoffs, she said. The service’s pension costs and operating expenses for technology and customer services have gone up. Meanwhile, MRS lost $2.5 million in funding from the unemployment agency that provided matching funds allowing the service to draw about $7.5 million in federal funding.
The unemployment agency is going through its own budget struggles and is laying off up to 400 workers.
MRS is going through an overhaul that will move it from the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs to the Department of Human Services. The changes are part of a wider restructuring that also reconfigures the Michigan Commission for the Blind.
Federal law mandates that if MRS doesn’t have enough money to serve all eligible clients, it must implement a statewide waiting list. Porter said she’s trying to avoid resorting to a waiting list.
About 490 MRS employees will remain after the layoffs, including 270 rehabilitation counselors. Some of the employees will be redirected toward job placement duties, Porter said.
“We haven’t given up, but we’ve been working diligently with the department we’ll be transferred to next year, DHS, to see if there’s some way we can make up for that loss,” she said
Marsha Florence, one of the Employment Service Interviewers who will lose her job, said it takes a specially trained person to connect people with disabilities with employers.
Florence said she helps job seekers with resumes, understanding job applications and interviewing skills.
“It takes a unique person to work closely with persons with disabilities,” said Florence, who said she has a disability and originally went through MRS as a client.
Email Melissa Anders at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter: @MelissaDAnders.
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