Assemblywoman Jenne: State Program Aimed at Assisting Those in Recovery Return to Workforce Would Be Beneficial

November 15, 2017

Assemblywoman Addie A.E. Jenne talks with New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services Commissioner Arlene González-Sánchez following a roundtable discussion at the Horizons Clubhouse in Massena with teens and young adults fighting addiction issues. The assemblywoman and commissioner discussed the challenges facing those in recovery seeking to re-enter the workforce.

Assemblywoman Addie A.E. Jenne, D-Theresa, is urging state economic development officials to launch programs that could help individuals get back into the workforce as they recover from past substance abuse issues.

The assemblywoman suggested it could be one way to address the state's skilled worker shortage during her questioning of Howard Zemsky, president and chief executive officer of Empire State Development, at this week's joint meeting of the state Assembly's Small Business and Economic Development, Job Creation, Commerce and Industry committees in Albany.

"I think we have all recognized we haven't really done as much as we could have with workforce development over the last several years," Assemblywoman Jenne said.

She said she has spoken with business leaders around the region and state she has heard concerns about the proposed workforce scheduling regulations.

"As I talk with businesses, they talk about the tax environment and high energy prices, those types of things, but they are increasingly sharing concerns about the lack of a reliable and trained workforce," Assemblywoman Jenne said.

"Couple that with the challenges many younger people are having finding work either because they don't have the necessary skills or they have made poor choices in their life that hinder employment opportunities," she added.

She noted one of the challenges facing businesses is simply getting workers to show up to do their jobs. She said a number of issues likely contribute to that problem, including the lack of transportation opportunities available in some areas of the state like the North Country.

But Assemblywoman Jenne suggested some of those issues might be a reflection of businesses' reluctance to hire employees that made mistakes in their past but are eager to get back into the workforce.

She said she understood the reluctance some businesses might have about hiring a person in recovery, but she wondered if the state could establish a program to ease that transition for workers and prospective employees.

"Could the workforce issues be because the business community is excluding whole swaths of people from consideration for employment because they have a criminal record?" she asked.

"Given we are in the height of an opioid epidemic in this state and in this country, I'm wondering if we can address two problems by establishing a workforce training or workforce support type of program to assist those in recovery re-enter the workforce," Assemblywoman Jenne noted.

She suggested new hires in recovery could benefit their employers.

"They may have all the incentive to show up for work because they have made that decision to turn around their lives," the assemblywoman suggested.

But she acknowledged businesses would benefit by having a support mechanism in place to help those in recovery transition back into the workplace.

"Have we looked at a robust kind of second chance type of employment and training opportunities? Are there other best practices or models to get people that haven't been working back into the workforce and get people with serious obstacles to employment a process we can employ so they can overcome those obstacles?" she asked Mr. Zemsky.

The commissioner of the state's Office of Economic Development pledged to look into the concerns raised by Assemblywoman Jenne.

"The workforce is tight. There is opportunity. We will work with our colleagues in state government - agencies like the Department of Labor, social service agencies. Perhaps there are some initiatives we can advance around what you describe as second chances," Mr. Zemsky said.

He pointed out the state has enacted a number of programs aimed at attacking the opioid epidemic. He also noted the state is making heavy investments in workforce development, including working with employers in the North Country.

"We have to take a second look at second chances to see if there are some best practices out there," Mr. Zemsky added.

He had cited workforce development as a critical component of the growth of the state's economy earlier in this testimony before the two state Assembly committees.

Mr. Zemsky said potential employees need training that is aligned with job opportunities in their region of the state.

"For too many years, we have lost such a disproportionate share of our young people from this state," he said, noting he was referring to people between the ages of 20 and 34.

"That is the population that plays an integral part in an expanding economy. We lost all those young, impactful, entrepreneurial people for decades. We have to grow young people," he said.

He said the challenges posed by the loss of young people are exacerbated as baby boomers hit the retirement cliff and leave the workforce.

"We have lost a lot of people, a lot of young people, a lot of skilled people across upstate. We have those retirement cliffs. That is what is holding (us) back," Mr. Zemsky stressed.

He noted that is a concern he hears when he meets with business leaders across the state.

"Our biggest obstacle to growth is our workforce. If you ask those people how many of you have good paying jobs that are unfilled, I would say by anecdotal evidence it is over 60 percent of the companies I ask that tell me they have good paying jobs that are unfilled. Matching up the skills of the workforce with job opportunities is particularly important," Mr. Zemsky said.