Reducing violators’ public assistance creates controversy

Legislation that would make it harder for public assistance to be reduced or decreased as a sanction for violating the program’s rules has passed the state Legislature.

A.2455A/S.3840A is awaiting Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s review and possible signature. It passed the state Assembly 94-50 with Assemblymen Andrew Goodell, R-Jamestown, and Joe Giglio, R-Gowanda, voting against the bill. The legislation passed the Senate, 42-20.

The legislation amends the state Social Services Law to require local Social Services agencies to determine if there is an exemption, lack of child care or transportation or an accommodation for a disability before issuing a re-engagement notice. That notice guarantees the right of a recipient to participate in a re-engagement process and avoid an in public assistance benefits. The re-engagement process is a process a public assistance recipient agrees to comply with any requirements, give reasons for default or demonstrates exemption at a conciliation conference. Such notice shall provide the participant with 10 days to request re-engagement.

This indicates the district has verified the availability of child care, transportation and accommodations for disability at the time of default. It is further provided that if a participant does not agree to comply, is not exempt or the district determines that the default was willful and without good cause, 10 days notice of intent shall be issued to discontinue or reduce benefits. Such notice shall include the verifications listed above, actions necessary to avoid discontinuance or reduction, including agreeing to comply, and the right to a fair hearing.

Social Services Departments would not be able to sanction a public assistance recipient during the re-engagement process. If a public assistance recipient is participating in work activities, there can be no sanction for a single infraction. Section 341 of the Social Services law would be amended to retain a conciliation process, but only as the most formal tool to avoid a sanction. It also establishes a written reminder if a recipient isn’t in compliance for 30 days. Durational sanctions would also be eliminated.

THE CURRENT PROCESS

The current law has an initial 10-day notice followed by a second 10-day notice of an intent to cut a person’s benefits. If the recipient disagrees, the recipient can request a fair hearing.

“I know most of our Upstate counties are running three or four months before they even schedule a fair hearing,” Goodell said during the floor debate on the bill. “So, if you don’t show up for a job training or work experience or a training program, under the current law, you can likely collect benefits for anywhere from three to five months before there’s a final determination and sanctions actually would kick in, right?”

Goodell described the current process as slow and cumbersome. Assemblywoman Pamela Hunter, D-Syracuse and the legislation’s sponsor, said the legislation tries to speed up the process by having local Social Services Departments reach out when an appointment is missed to see why the recipient missed the appointment. Supporters of the legislation said focusing on re-engaging people when they miss appointments is a better approach than punitive measures that strip them of their benefits.

“And what this bill would do would is actually help people to get back to work, by trying to identify what the issue is in order to get them back to – to the job training, the work that they … need to be in in order to be able to provide for their families,” Hunter said.

Goodell wondered why it should be incumbent on Social Services departments to make inquiries about missed appointments when private employers don’t take such actions with employees. He said employees are expected to be able to arrange their own childcare and their own transportation, not employers. Hunter said in Goodell’s example, employees can call their employer and explain that they had a transportation or child care issue and miss work without threat of losing their job. Goodell replied that the difference, in his mind, is that employees take the initiative with their employer and explain the situation while the legislation reversed that initiative from the public assistance recipient and made it the responsibility of Social Services departments. Hunter disagreed with Goodell’s characterization.

“And again, as you were stating, the recipient is already responsible, and continues to be responsible, to make that phone call,” Hunter said. “And this computerized generation essentially happens and, hopefully, prompts before, so that the Social Service agency makes that call before the notification goes out to the recipient.”

ISSUES WITH THE SYSTEM

After finishing his questions with Hunter, Goodell made comments on the bill. He said work experience and job training are integral to helping people gain the skills necessary to get off of public assistance programs, which is why current laws require able-bodied welfare recipients participate in work experience and job training programs.

“But what we don’t do with our work and job training programs is in any way expect any personal responsibility or accountability, nor do we really expect them to behave in a way that’s consistent with what any other employer in the state of New York would expect,” Goodell said. “And what is that basic consistency? The basic consistency is that they show up on Monday, if they’re assigned to start on Monday for a job training program or work experience, that they show up. And if they don’t show up because they can’t, that they promptly contact us and say, ‘I can’t because I have a transportation issue, or a daycare issue or some other accommodation, so that we, as the state, can help them address those issues and make sure that they can continue on with job training and their work experience and maximize their potential.”

Goodell said the current system is so cumbersome that it is “virtually worthless” as a tool to get people into job training programs because it gives them 10 days to explain why they missed a day of a job training program work experience. The change being discussed by the state Legislature, he said, makes the already flawed system even worse.

“And do you know what’s happened in the meantime?” Goodell asked. “That employer has moved on. That job training program has moved on. Those opportunities are no longer there. … Because this program now changes the burden of establishing if someone doesn’t have childcare or transportation not on the individual who knows their exact circumstances and their personal situation, it changes it from having the individual explain, to having the Department of Social Services, our county employees and city employees, having to somehow verify or figure out that the individuals don’t have child care; that there’s nobody in the individual’s family that can help them; that there’s no informal or formal daycare available. And only after our beleaguered local officials and employees do that calculation can they even respond.”

Assemblyman Alan Hevesi, D-Forest Hills, spoke immediately after Goodell in support of the legislation. He said a similar program has worked in New York City and was originally intended as a statewide initiative, but according to Hevesi, politics got in the way. Hevesi also called on Cuomo to sign the legislation given the governor’s “effusive” praise when the New York City initiative was passed. In regards to Goodell’s criticism, Hevesi said Social Services departments should be required to do basic due diligence on public assistance cases before removing someone’s benefits.

“And from the explanation from my colleague, I don’t understand if we’re reading the same bill,” Hevesi said. “Here’s the point of this exercise: Right now, if you’re on public assistance and you miss appointments, for whatever reason, no transportation and no childcare, you get booted off; a durational sanction that we kick you off of public assistance for a certain amount of time, which hurts you and your family. But guess who else that hurts? It’s hurts the counties. Because it costs you more money. Every time you boot somebody off of public assistance for a certain period of time, the exponentially more likely that those people are going to wind up in a homeless shelter, costing your counties more money. This is helpful to you.”

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