By Stephen Smoot
One of the most lasting and damaging social side effects of the pandemic lies in its tragic impact on the workforce. Jobs that attracted multitudes of applicants in the 1990s now go unfilled. Beyond its effect on the supply chain, businesses have restricted hours or shut down. They’ve done this not because they cannot earn profits, but that they cannot find workers. The Senior Employment Program, headed up by Barbara Fortner at Region 8, seeks to address this problem.
“Our goal is to help clients to become self-sufficient, build self-esteem, get them prepared, and help them to find unsubsidized employment,” says Fortner. The program, funded by the United States Department of Labor through the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, accepts applicants 55 or older. Successful applicants receive placements in nonprofit workplace settings.
Since the program only accepts a limited number of clients, Fortner explains, it prioritizes veterans first, then seniors who have certain disadvantages, such as being homeless, those coming out of jail or prison, or people trying to return to the workforce from disabled status. All clients must meet income guidelines that go by the federally established poverty level.
The program is categorized as a training for employment, not simply an employment placement like Manpower or Kelly Services. Clients should have opportunities to learn skills while at their placement, with the goal of developing “experiences that can be put on a resume,” as Fortner describes.
Clients may only be part of the program for one year and receive the West Virginia minimum wage of $8.75 an hour in the form of a stipend. The program goes by the state minimum wage because it is higher than the federal. By law, this stipend does not count as income against what is received through welfare assistance, such as food stamps or subsidized housing.
Additionally, clients can expect a minimum of 15 hours per week and a maximum of 29. The U.S. Department of Labor determines how many hours clients may work. The number may fluctuate up or down during a client’s tenure in the program as a result. Limited resources limit the number of participants and number of hours.
The program covers Pendleton, Grant, Mineral, Hardy, Morgan, Berkeley, and Jefferson counties in West Virginia and Frederick and Shenandoah in Virginia. Goodwill Industries accepts many of the clients, in part because helping the recently incarcerated is part of their overall mission. Clients also receive placements into county senior and family service agencies, school systems, and other nonprofits that serve disadvantaged populations.
Only one participant in the program comes from Pendleton County. Fortner says, however, that she has received requests for multiple placements. “Right now, I have been contacted by the Pendleton County Board of Education. They’d like to have participants in Franklin Elementary School, Brandywine Elementary School, and North Fork Elementary School. If I get more than they need, I will spend time trying to find organizations who need placements.”
Any placements into the school system would be vetted and checked in the same way as any other volunteers, athletic coaches, or staff before starting.
Fortner advises that participants start looking for regular employment while still in the program. That way, if the actual job is not a good fit, they still have time to return to the program and learn more skills before the year limit expires.
She adds that the best outcome is when the placement organization offers the client a regular job. This happens often with the most motivated and hardest working clients. Fortner described a client who was not a great fit for the first placement, but thrived when moved to a new one. “Two weeks later, they hired her,” she said.