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Why return-to-work won’t be a return to business as usual

No stranger to tough situations, President John F. Kennedy once said, "The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word 'crisis.' One brush stroke stands for danger, the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger, but recognize the opportunity."

Government has understandably focused on the hardships created by the COVID-19 unemployment crisis. However, it must not neglect the other brush stroke — the opportunity to reinvent a return-to-work system to support record numbers of unemployed people and address the unique challenges they face searching for jobs during a pandemic.

A complex employment environment

To be sure, figuring out the new normal won’t be easy. Plenty of people, including many higher-skill workers, have lost jobs in fields that withstood previous downturns and now need support for the first time. Some haven't tested the job market in years — so long, in fact, they may be unfamiliar with LinkedIn, digital portfolios, and online applications. And anxiety will only increase as benefits dry up or waivers of work search requirements end.

To return the vast numbers of "COVID-unemployed" to work, some real gaps in government support need to be addressed. Historically, most UI claimants find work with little assistance, so current networks of work-related programs and services focus on job seekers who’ve traditionally been harder to place. In the face of challenges created by COVID-19, more job seekers will require more types of assistance to facilitate their speedy return to work.

Ready for a paradigm shift

Maximus has partnered with state and local governments to help people find jobs since 1988 — we understand what works. During 2020, we worked in the trenches with unemployment programs in 18 states to help them scale up and support unprecedented demand for benefits. This included many facets of claims processing, fact-finding, adjudication, and claimant support. Given our unique vantage point, we've devoted a lot of thought and planning to what comes next.

States have tremendous flexibility in implementing and aligning work-related programs — including the use of government, private sector, and job training resources. By leveraging this flexibility, states can better align services available to UI claimants to support their unique needs and hasten their return to work. Maximus is uniquely equipped to help states make the most of this opportunity.

Imagine a better bridge between UI claimants and the world of work

Right now, the primary connection between UI and future employment is an individual’s own initiative to seek help. Although states require UI applicants to register with their state's job board and demonstrate an active job search, it’s up to most claimants to contact a WIOA-funded American Job Centers (AJC) to request help in their job search or refresh their skills. Yet, for various reasons — pride being a big one — individuals are often wary of seeking help. That is, until their situation becomes so dire that they have additional challenges to address.

Each person’s abilities, familiarity with current job search practices, and overall health concerns can play significant roles in finding future employment. While many COVID-19 claimants don't require the full support of an AJC, they could use help navigating other existing resources.

What if we, the service community, proactively reached out first? What if we offered claimants support in navigating their search before they exhaust UI benefits? We could connect them with the many self-serve and virtual resources that states already provide. And we could serve as a short-term virtual coach or navigator to help them through the process of returning to work.

We're ready to build that bridge today

Most UI claimants receive support in the form of passive letters or text messages. A partner like Maximus could help you create proactive connections between resources — and reimagine how your network of services and programs could work in sync to support UI claimants and expedite their return to work.

We do this type of work all day, every day, proactively reaching out to participants in wide-scale employment projects across the country and empowering them to act. Rather than leaving UI claimants to figure out what services are available to them — and from whom — why not join with a partner that has the ability and capacity to engage and support the volume of claimants needing services?

Offering a centralized resource to connect claimants with relevant job search resources could equip them for a faster return to work and reduce their frustration and confusion in navigating the process. For those claimants needing more intensive support or even access to training, we can do a warm handoff to the local AJC — connecting the claimant with the right service and ensuring that someone on the other end of the handoff is expecting them and ready to serve them.

Getting — and keeping — people employed

Creating an optimal experience to help people return to work and stabilize economic activity in your community is a multi-faceted challenge. Here are several more ways we can increase the odds of success:

  • Provide on-demand services for UI claimants. At Maximus, we're experts at adding capacity, supplementing government staff, building partnerships, understanding employer needs, and connecting systems and agencies, so it's easier to pair the right people with the right programs and resources fast. And we can do it all virtually, so you can better meet the needs of job seekers safely and conveniently.
  • Create the "right matches." By facilitating faster, more meaningful connections between employers and job seekers, we can make it easier for employers to find the types of workers they want.
  • Rethink job retraining. Currently, there's an emphasis on upskilling low-income earners. But with job losses affecting more types of earners, and new job growth coming from different industries, we see reskilling as an emergent priority. We're working with training providers to embrace this new paradigm.
  • Increase integration between programs. As people inevitably exhaust unemployment insurance and turn to safety net programs like TANF, SNAP, or Medicaid, Maximus can facilitate coordination between programs, create efficiencies in the handoff, and offer solutions for agency partners to implement.
  • Support for managing challenges. We know success in a job isn't just about landing the position — it's about successfully managing all the other aspects of life that play a role in it, including child care, transportation, and pandemic hangover issues such as mental health stresses or late mortgage payments. We can help connect former claimants to local resources offered by government, the private sector, and community groups to ensure their transition to employment is successful.

Now is the time to act

Not since the Great Recession have the stakes been higher for states to stabilize economic activity and protect the integrity and solvency of unemployment trust funds. Steps taken to help UI claimants find work faster and reduce the duration of benefits — even by just a few weeks — could reduce pressure on UI trust funds as well as UI trust fund loans that many states are requesting from the U.S. Department of Labor. This could be a significant first step as states delve into broader return-to-work objectives, including:

  • Improving employment outcomes
  • Strengthening UI program integrity to protect benefits and limit potential employer tax increases
  • Coordinating, aligning, and integrating multi-program services and data to realize more significant synergies across the network of employment services and programs
  • Improving and optimizing service delivery by creating a more citizen-centric experience

To paraphrase JFK, the opportunities are there in our current crisis. Maximus has the proven processes to help you take advantage of them.