Two years ago, the federal government launched a new grant program to retrain and employ "dislocated workers," people who lost their jobs and are unlikely to find work again in the same field. Think coal plant or steel manufacturing workers.
Though Congress awarded $150 million to states through the so-called Sector Partnership National Emergency Grant program, the labor department says some states have trouble using the money and end up sending it back to the feds.
"Anecdotally, I know that states have trouble determining [dislocated worker] eligibility," says Martin Simon, who oversees workforce development policy at the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices.
That is, local workforce agencies struggle to collect enough information to prove that people are eligible for the federal assistance. As a result, many people who ought to qualify for help don't. And if states still want to retrain those laid-off workers, they have to foot the bill themselves.
Rhode Island, however, has discovered a way to solve that problem -- and it may be a solution for other states. The fix also saves time for clients and caseworkers as well as money for the state.
After using only $560,000 out of a possible $5.2 million grant last year, Rhode Island officials knew they needed to change something. Before, people who recently lost their jobs and may be considered "dislocated" would fill out a six-page form that asked for their complete work history over the last 10 years. Then that form would get sent to state workforce counselors, who would manually check unemployment insurance claims and wage records to verify whether the worker was dislocated.
"It was very cumbersome and you're asking for detail that you're not very confident is accurate," says Sarah Blusiewicz, an assistant director in the state's division of workforce development services.
Now, the state uses an automated data-matching tool that doesn't rely on people's memory. It instead uses Social Security numbers to pull all the information from unemployment claims and wage data.
The result: In the first half of 2017, about 52 percent of applicants have been covered by the federal Sector Partnership grant -- up from 9 percent last year when the tool wasn't being used.
The change also removes some work for both caseworkers and clients, says Blusiewicz. Caseworkers spend less time tracking down records and manually comparing databases. Clients have gone from filling out an onerous six-page form to a simplified one-page form that mostly asks for basic contact information.
Because the state is able to prove that more people are in fact dislocated workers, it can access more of the federal dollars it already won, freeing up state money for other job placement and training services.
For that, the state has the Rhode Island Innovative Policy Lab (RIIPL) to thank.
Rhode Island is one of a few state and local governments with a foundation-backed "policy lab." These are teams of academic researchers in different disciplines -- from behavioral economics to computer science -- that help government agencies examine problems and try new solutions.
State officials suspected they had failed to identify dislocated workers, so they asked RIIPL researchers at Brown University for assistance. The team looked at the process the state used for determining whether a laid-off worker was dislocated, realized people were in fact being unintentionally denied benefits, and came up with the new tool.
"This is a small project, but it meant the world in our program," says Blusiewicz. "In most other states, dislocated worker eligibility is just a pain and everybody puts up with it."
The availability of a research team, she says, meant they could try to understand why it's a pain and how to fix it.