State program aids employers, workers

Kennewick's Center for Pediatrics is open today because of a little-known program offered by the state Employment Security Department.

Dr. Ronald Wojnas, one of two pediatricians at the clinic, told state Employment Security Commissioner Paul Trause on Monday that the Shared-Work Program is what helped him keep the clinic open after Medicaid cuts.

Trause has been touring WorkSource offices in the state and meeting with employers who use the program, which allows workers to receive partial unemployment benefits when their hours are reduced.

When Medicaid payments were cut by the state about two years ago, it was a big hit to the clinic's budget, Wojnas said. About 62 percent of the clinic's income came from serving Medicaid patients.

So Wojnas said he had to lay off three employees and make all possible cuts. And when that wasn't enough, employees were asked to take one unpaid day off per week.

A year ago, the clinic discovered the Shared-Work Program. Now, seven of the clinic's employees are using the program on a weekly basis. The clinic has a staff of 11, not including the two doctors.

The program has helped reduce the clinic's salary costs so that it can remain financially viable and stay open, Wojnas said.

Elizabeth Ortiz, a certified medical assistant, said the Shared-Work Program has helped her to be able to stay with the clinic and it's easy for employees to use.

It pays employees about half of their lost wages, Wojnas said.

Kathy Messinger, a financial administrative assistant, said the program helps her family fill in the gaps in their budget.

Employees who use the program fill out a form online each week reporting their hours and wages, she said. If they work more than 20 hours but less than 36, they can receive unemployment benefits for the reduced hours.

Trause said the program saves the state money because the workers are not receiving full unemployment benefits. And they continue to be employed, with the goal of having them return to full time as soon as possible.

And in order to be in the program, benefits for employees remain the same, he said.

Employers keep their skilled work force rather than having to retrain someone who is able to work part time, he said. There is an increase to what the employer pays for unemployment benefits for its employees.

Trause said he would like to see more employers in the Tri-Cities area use the program to avoid layoffs. Currently, 21 employers and 180 employees are using the program in the Tri-Cities.

Statewide, about 2,200 employers and 25,000 employees are using the program.

Employers can participate for three years but need to reapply each year. The length of time was extended because of the recession, Trause said. Employers then must wait at least a year before reapplying.

Although the state started the program in the early 1980s, Trause said it wasn't until the most recent recession that it became used by a wider range of businesses than manufacturers.

w Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; kpihl@tricityherald.com