(Washington, D.C.) In 1998, Congress passed legislation to help America’s workers – including those who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own.
The legislation, known as the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), provides one-stop job centers, training programs and other employment-related services for workers in Washington state and around the nation. It also fosters partnerships between workers, businesses, community colleges and organized labor to meet the workforce needs in local communities.
This year, Congress is updating (reauthorizing) the Act. Senator Murray is using her position as the Ranking Member of the Senate Employment, Safety and Training Subcommittee to make sure any changes will help workers and employers.
Today, at a hearing of the Subcommittee, Senator Murray outlined her priorities for WIA. She also introduced a witness from Washington State, Mike Kennedy of Lacey, Washington. Mr. Kennedy, the executive director of the Pacific Mountain Workforce Development Council, testified before Murray’s subcommittee.
Murray’s opening remarks follow.
Thank you, Chairman Enzi. I want to commend you for calling this second hearing of the Employment, Safety and Training Subcommittee to update the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) to meet the needs of workers and employers.
I’m happy to welcome our two distinguished panels of witnesses. They bring unique perspectives on how we can strengthen and improve services to employers and jobseekers, and I welcome their expertise. I especially want to thank Mike Kennedy from the Pacific Mountain Workforce Development Council in Lacey, Washington for making the long journey across our country to share his insights with the Subcommittee this morning.
As we talk about WIA and performance measures and personal reemployment accounts, it’s easy to get caught up in the jargon. But behind each of these programs are real people who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own. They want to work. They want to pay the mortgage and put food on the table. And we’ve got an obligation here to make sure they succeed.
These families are balanced on the leading edge of our economy – out where job opportunities and skills are constantly shifting. We need to give them a strong, solid foundation to a good-paying job.
I see the challenges in my home state of Washington. Our unemployment rate is 7.3 percent. That’s the second highest unemployment rate in the nation. Tens of thousands of workers in my state have lost their jobs over the last two and half years, and they desperately need retraining services. We’ve also seen that the number of people using one-stop centers has increased dramatically.
What we do with this Act may mean the difference between someone who’s trapped outside the workforce without the skills they need, and someone who can compete and win in today’s economy. So let’s never loose sight of the families that are affected by every change we make.
Let’s also remember that unemployment is not a partisan issue. It’s an American challenge, and one that we must face together. I hope that under the leadership of our Chairman we will continue the strong tradition of bipartisanship around workforce development issues.
Of course, WIA has only been operational for three years, which is not enough time to fully analyze the success and the failures of the current system. I do not believe we have the kind of empirical evidence to suggest wholesale changes to the Act.
I have been encouraged to see new partnerships developing in my state with the business community, organized labor, community colleges and the provider community. We must build on these successes and not throw the workforce system into chaos by implementing sweeping changes.
As we begin to update our workforce programs, let’s keep in mind that we don’t want to push people into dead-end jobs to get them off the rolls. Our goal is to empower people to find jobs that will last and that will truly improve their lives. To meet that goal, I’m focusing on three priorities.
First, we must empower WIA’s two customers – business and workers -- to use their first-hand knowledge to meet local employment needs, while providing the appropriate incentives and flexibility to bring people and businesses into one-stop centers. This flexibility, however, should not mean using block grants to consolidate services. For example, we should not eliminate Wagner-Peyser funding for the critical labor exchange function carried out by the US Employment Service. I pledge to work during the Appropriations process to seek renewed federal infrastructure funding for one-stops. My goal for this funding is to help reduce the financial burdens facing one-stop partners and to encourage greater cooperation and increased leveraging of resources at the state and local level.
Second, we should make WIA’s services more efficient at every level by streamlining the performance, reporting and eligibility criteria and knocking down barriers to job training. We must strike an appropriate balance between state and local control. For example, Washington State has done an excellent job of governance through its tripartite board structure. Any reauthorization bill must continue to allow governors to retain this type of flexibility in deciding how best to structure its state board.
And finally we should provide more appropriate performance measures to reflect the type of work and labor market being served.
I would also note that we’ve got to stop the funding cuts that undermine our workers. We’ve got to fund workforce development programs adequately to meet the growing needs of millions of unemployed and underemployed Americans who have worked hard and played by the rules.
Before I close, I want to raise some concerns about the personal reemployment accounts that the Administration has proposed. To me, this proposal is inadequate and unfair.
First, the accounts don’t provide enough money to really help a dislocated worker. The average training program costs $5,000. The president only offers $3,000. So workers won’t be able to afford the training they need.
In addition, if you take the $3,000, then you’re cut off from getting any other support from Workforce Investment Act programs for a full year.
And these accounts aren’t open to everyone. They are only available to people who are collecting unemployment benefits. That leaves out people whose benefits have expired, new entrants, many women and minorities, and low-wage workers. Someone who’s lost his job might not even be eligible for re-employment accounts. Even if they are – there’s not enough money for even the average training program, and they’re cut-off from receiving any other WIA support for an entire year. That is not the type of solid and reliable framework to help dislocated workers.
We’re trying to build a springboard that dislocated workers can use to find a good job. There are so many holes in the Administration’s approach I’m afraid many people are going to fall through the cracks instead of getting the support they need.
In closing, I believe that a strengthened Workforce Investment Act can help provide the skills training employers need to remain competitive in our global economy. I look forward to working with Chairman Enzi and all of the members of the HELP Committee in fashioning a bipartisan reauthorization bill that will be responsive to the needs of all working Americans.