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Friday webinar series recap: How counties & case workers are responding to COVID-19

May 5, 2020
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The Center for Community Solutions, in partnership with Advocates for Ohio’s Future, hosted speakers from various family service agencies from across the state in a May 1 webinar. The topic of discussion was the impact COVID-19 has had on some of the state’s largest social programs and services and how those organizations have managed thus far.  

Speakers from the Ohio Job and Family Services Directors’ Association kicked things off by discussing the influx of applicants in the three main entitlement programs they administer, Medicaid, SNAP and TANF.

 Waivers that the state requested from the federal government, however, have allowed for agencies to streamline their workloads and help with application processing.

Waivers that the state requested from the federal government, however, have allowed for agencies to streamline their workloads and help with application processing.  

In a previous post, we discussed how waivers that allow for things like verbal signatures of applicants, extension of SNAP recertification periods and the suspension of all Medicaid redeterminations to name a few, can flatten the curve, boost the economy, maintain quality of life and help keep people, both applicants and Job and Family Services (JFS) employees, safe.  

The waivers have also allowed many employees to maintain social distancing guidelines and work efficiently from home as remote work can be critical to protecting employees. The Directors’ Association reports that a majority of JFS employees are working from home in a majority of counties.

 The Directors’ Association reports that a majority of JFS employees are working from home in a majority of counties.

The Directors’ Association also highlighted that the strong state-county partnership is key to the success. Jeanne Carroll from the Directors’ Association says, “more has been accomplished in the last six weeks than the last six years.” This has been accomplished by requesting waivers; getting system changes done quickly and communicating those changes; and working in tandem to switch from agency-based to home-based work.  

Ohio Job and Family Services Director Kimberly Hall has scheduled calls with every county director every week since the pandemic began, to assess needs and discuss outcomes.  

Roxane Somerlot, the JFS Director in Marion County, discussed the first steps she took to switch from agency-based to home-based work, including surveying her staff and determining how comfortable and ready staff were to work from home. After making a few adjustments, such as having to bring their desktop computers home because many systems did not work on personal computers, her staff have been just as productive as before the pandemic, even taking on weekend and late hours. She has prioritized upskilling her staff to be able to host virtual job fairs and conduct virtual interviewing for their clients soon.

 One positive of the pandemic is being able to connect with people who were previously unfamiliar with JFS programs but were entitled to them

One positive of the pandemic, Somerlot explained, is being able to connect with people who were previously unfamiliar with JFS programs but were entitled to them. Many families are applying for government benefits for the first time in their lives and are only aware of well-known assistance programs such as SNAP and Medicaid, however JFS staff have been able to navigate families to kinship care programs in situations where a grandparent may be taking care of grandchildren, for example.  

One of Somerlot’s biggest concerns is about what happens with the moratorium on rent ends and families who may be unemployed have to pay 3 to 4 months in back rent.  

Somerlot believes the role of JFS is to support families first, then support the economy. Along with their normal duties, Marion County JFS has been working alongside the county sheriff’s department to conduct wellness checks on seniors and working alongside Legal Aid to assist in helping families get into, and maintain, housing.  

Public Children Services Association of Ohio (PCSAO) Director of Public Policy Mary Wachtel stated public children’s service agencies (PCSAs) are open for business, but it’s not business as usual. PCSAs are mandated to continue operations regardless of the pandemic, this includes contact and safety investigations for screened-in reports. As noted in a previous piece, PCSAs must still ensure children are safe in open and ongoing cases but the pandemic has complicated these already complex duties.  

Wachtel pointed to three key issue areas:

  • Child safety
  • Placement challenges
  • Worker safetyShe then invited two caseworkers who both work with Ohio Sobriety, Treatment and Reducing Trauma (START) to speak about their experiences and how their duties have changed since the public health crisis began.
 The pandemic has presented many new stressors to families, such as budgeting concerns, and they look to her for guidance and consistency.

Sarah Neff, who works in Warren County, spoke about how it’s more important now than ever that she stays in constant communication with the families in her caseload to assure they don’t fall back into bad habits. The pandemic has presented many new stressors to families, such as budgeting concerns, and they look to her for guidance and consistency.  

Ashely Durst, who works as a caseworker in Trumbull County, echoed a lot of Neff’s statements and emphasized how the pandemic has made it hard to connect with some of the families in her caseload and she’s worried the stressors the pandemic has created may have forced them back into a harmful place.  

This Friday, in our ongoing ‘Friday Webinar’ series, our associate director, Emily Campbell, will discuss the results of our COVID19 survey of nonprofit and government organizations. Sign up today to learn more about how agencies across the state have been affected by the pandemic.

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