State passes up federal disabilities aid for jobless, despite backlogs

¦ Lack of funding barrier to employment, critics say
by Tegan Wendland Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Justin Peebles just wants to work.

The 32-year-old Wausau man is epileptic and needs a job that will allow him to work part-time in a safe environment, in case he has a sudden seizure. He fears he will soon land back in the homeless shelter because he cannot afford the rent at the halfway house where he lives.

“It’s something I worry about every day,” Peebles said.

Back in April, Peebles applied for services at the state Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, tasked with helping Wisconsinites with disabilities find work. He has been on a waiting list for services for three months. In late June, he was told he had another two to three months to wait.

“There is no way around it. There are no other programs that can help,” said Peebles, who has been trying unsuccessfully to secure Social Security disability benefits.

Thousands of people with disabilities must wait for months to access state employment services, although DVR has not requested its full allotment of federal funds for the past three years, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism has found.

That means more people must remain on the waiting list, and for longer periods of time. And people with less serious disabilities are likely to receive no help at all, public records and interviews show.

Cathy Steffke, advocacy spe- cialist with Disability Rights Wisconsin, a nonprofit advocacy group, said that underfunding of DVR is “one of the biggest barriers to employment in the state.”

In the new fiscal year, Wisconsin will receive $55.6 million in federal funds to run its employment programs for people with disabilities, and spend $15.1 million in state funds. That is the minimum amount the state can spend on the $71-million-a-year program without being subject to federal penalties.

Wisconsin could get an additional $14.2 million in federal funds if it were to come up with a $3.9 million match to cover funding for the next two years, which DVR officials acknowledge would allow them to serve more people.

DVR currently helps about 17,000 people, while an additional 4,077 are on its waiting list. Last year the agency found jobs for 3,200 people.

“If we did receive our full state match we could work with another 3,000 individuals,” DVR administrator Mike Greco said.

The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau said earlier this year that DVR could nearly eliminate its waiting list over two years if it were to accept full federal funding.

However, Greco said he did not do that because the agency is already meeting the goals it has set for itself, in addition to meeting requirements set by the U.S. Department of Education and the Wisconsin Rehabilitation Council, which oversees the division.

“We have the staffing that we need, we have the funding that we need to provide comprehensive services; our wait time is under six months,” Greco said. “The program is doing very well.”

DVR officials say they are pleased with their success in bringing the length of the wait list down from its peak of about 13,000 in 2009.

DVR’s own projections show the current funding level will cause the typical wait time for clients, currently four to five months, to grow by one to two months by the middle of 2015.

Greco said he is not worried about the current length of the wait, but “if it’s over six months, we tend to lose track of individuals.”

And that means some people who need and deserve help will not get it, said Linda Vegoe, chairwoman of the council that oversees DVR. Some may just give up, Vegoe said, “and that’s the saddest thing of all I think.”

DVR officials said that while they cannot legally offer statefunded services during this waiting period, counselors can provide referrals to other agencies to those on the waiting list if they call and ask.

“The DVR program, I think, is one of the best laws that was ever written,” said Vegoe, who heads the Client Assistance Program with the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

With more funding, “It could have a greater impact on the state’s economy and on the lives of more people with disabilities.”

Underfunded, understaffed

Wisconsin’s DVR program was created in the early 1920s. The agency, part of the state Department of Workforce Development, has 187 counselors and 43 locations throughout the state.

DVR counselors help clients apply for jobs, arrange for special accommodations such as wheelchairs and accessibility software and navigate transportation issues, among a host of other services.

“The services are good, if you can get them,” said Nick Zouski of Access to Independence, a Madison-based nonprofit group that helps people with disabilities. “The major problem is that they’re just not available to a lot of people.”

Zouski has seen the importance of DVR’s services as both a client and a case manager. After he lost most of the use of his limbs in a diving accident in 1996, a DVR counselor helped him get his current job.

DVR helped Zouski buy a van with a lift for his wheelchair. It provided assistive technology at work, including a trackball mouse for his computer and tall desk to fit his wheelchair, and the agency paid for on-the-job training for his first three months.

Now Zouski helps others apply for DVR services, which he said are more crucial than ever given the tight job market.

“A lot of these people have immediate needs,” he says. “And some of the services they can really only get through DVR, and they are made to put their lives on hold.”

According to a national report by the Institute for Community Inclusion, a research and advocacy group at the University of Massachusetts- Boston, about 124,000 working-age Wisconsin residents with disabilities were employed in 2011. Another 210,000 were out of work. Some of each group received Social Security disability benefits.

Critics argue that DVR should request all available federal funding to work toward fuller employment for the disabled. The agency itself claims it has a return of $2.10 for every $1 spent.

In May, the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, on a 12-4 party line vote with Republicans in the majority, voted to keep the state’s contribution to the $15.1 million minimum.

Committee member Sen. Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, said it makes no sense to turn down the extra federal help when the state is behind most of the rest of the country in job creation.

“Anybody who wants to work, we should be giving them the tools to allow them to meet those dreams and those goals for full employment,” Shilling said.

Rep. Dean Knudson, R-Hudson, was the only Republican legislator on the Joint Finance Committee to respond to repeated calls and emails for comment over the past month.

“We chose the option that we did because it allows us to provide services to those with the greatest need immediately,” Knudson said, while “protecting Wisconsin citizens from potential further reductions in federal funding.”


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