AS FEDS SLASH FUNDS, JOBS PROGRAMS ARE PUT ON NOTICE

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Job training advocates already frustrated with the city’s slow progress implementing the Workforce Investment Act (WIA)–the new federal program supporting job training and counseling for both the unemployed and workers looking to get new skills–are about to hear more bad news.

Last month, Congress voted to pull $242.5 million from this year’s WIA budget as part of a series of cuts to offset new spending for the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Thanks to New York’s sluggish pace in spending its share of WIA funds from last year, the cut is likely to hit the state hard.

How Congress will distribute the budget reduction among states has yet to be determined. The conference report specifying the cuts directs the Secretary of Labor to “reduce each State’s program year 2001 allotment…based on each State’s share of unexpended balances as of June 30, 2001.” In other words, if you’ve used it, you won’t lose it, but money not yet spent could be gone forever.

That spells trouble for New York, which according to recent data has spent just 36 percent of its WIA allotment, well below the national average of 47 percent. In fact, only Ohio has spent less than New York on programs and activities to support job training and employment.

Staff at the Workforce Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based job training advocacy group, say that foot-dragging by New York City is a big part of the reason why the state as a whole has been so slow to spend its WIA allotment. But Dorothy Lehman, the recently named executive director of the city’s Workforce Investment Board (WIB), argues that the city has struggled with the same startup obstacles that have impeded progress on WIA nationwide.

“In many respects, it’s the same here as it has been around the country,” said Lehman. “There’s been confusion about certain definitions, confusion as to what the customer flow is expected to be, delays in negotiating performance standards.. If this wasn’t a national problem, the Department of Labor wouldn’t have felt it necessary to call together groups to Washington to explain how it’s supposed to work.” Arranging the details of the various partnerships mandated by WIA–with other government agencies, educational institutions, and private sector actors–have proven particularly time-consuming in New York City.

For now, workforce officials everywhere are playing a waiting game, unable to plan ahead for their programs until the Department of Labor determines how much each state workforce board will lose. The feds expect to announce the numbers in mid September, and only then will the local WIBs know how extensively programs and plans will be hit.

But the worst news is that the consequences could extend beyond the one-time budget cut. “As Congress begins looking at appropriations for the 2002 WIA budget,” said Workforce Alliance head Andy van Kleunan, “it’s possible that not only will the funding go down even further than the 10 percent cut already proposed by the Bush administration, but that slow-spending states will face additional sanctions–meaning New York might take another hit.”