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New Hampshire Closes Jobs Office for Disabled in Lebanon



Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, November 02, 2017

Lebanon — A state office that helps people with disabilities to find suitable employment is poised to close in December, the latest in a string of closings of state agencies in Lebanon in the past decade.

The state director of Vocational Rehabilitation, Lisa Hinson-Hatz, announced in an email to staff last week the closure of the Lebanon office responsible for helping people with disabilities overcome barriers — physical or otherwise — to employment.

“Instead, the agency will be re-directing staff (Bruce Chipman, Sarah Vogel and Angel Barton) to various different locations ... to continue to provide customer service to the Lebanon and Claremont areas of the state,” she wrote. “Although our physical address will not remain, our commitment and the commitment of our staff to serving individuals with disabilities and business partners will continue.”

Some in Lebanon said that the closing of the regional vocational rehabilitation center is the latest in a series of state offices moving out of the city, making it more difficult for people who need assistance to access it.

“How disappointing,” Lynne Goodwin, Lebanon’s director of human services, said upon hearing of the planned move. “We have very few vocational supports in Lebanon anymore.”

A state Employment Security office based in Lebanon, a city of 13,500, closed in 2011. That closing means that unemployed Upper Valley workers without disabilities who need help with claims or looking for a new job must travel to offices in Claremont, which also has a population of 13,500, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The gap in employment assistance is one that Cameron Ford, executive director of Headrest, has sensed. Ford, who took the job at Headrest this spring after nearly three decades in the employment and training field, said preparing people with substance use disorders to re-enter the workforce is an important part of helping them to transition from treatment back to their lives.

He described employment assistance — including help preparing a resume, completing an application, finding a job, being persistent, and shaking someone’s hand and looking them in the eye — as part of the “continuum of care” that people in recovery need. These supports are so essential that Ford said the nonprofit is seeking to begin providing them on its own.

“It’s just such an important piece of who we are as a society,” he said. “If you can help people do it and do it well so that they’re going into jobs that they’ll enjoy ... I think we’re better off.”

Accessing services outside the city can be a challenge, Goodwin noted. “Many people I’m working with don’t have transportation,” she said.

Transportation issues were also on the mind of Jane Morgan, West Central Behavioral Health’s supportive employment coordinator.

“There’s no transportation between Claremont and Lebanon,” said Morgan, who works in both cities. “If there was a bus, it may make more sense. It limits access so much for people with disabilities. It’s almost like another blow.”

For Morgan, it will likely mean that she will spend time driving clients from one city to the other, which will mean she will be able to help fewer people, she said.

Other recent state office closures in Lebanon have included a Department of Motor Vehicles office in 2011 and a Department of Human Services office.

Upper Valley residents on the New Hampshire side now must to go to North Haverhill — on the second or fourth Friday of the month — or to Newport to renew their drivers licenses.

The DMV move has made it difficult for people without transportation to obtain a non-driver photo identification card, which they need to vote or get a job, Morgan said.

“I’ve heard people saying, ‘I can’t get there, I can’t vote,’ ” Morgan said.

The closure of the human services office made it more difficult for people to sign up for Medicaid and Medicare, Morgan said.

Seen together, Morgan described the state office closures as “a drain for people with disabilities.”

But New Hampshire Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut said residents shouldn’t be concerned about a loss of access to services in this case. There “shouldn’t be any interruption” in Vocational Rehabilitation services when the Lebanon office on Mechanic Street closes on Dec. 1, he said in a phone interview on Monday.

“Everybody’s going to continue to be serviced,” Edelblut said of the Lebanon-based clients of Vocational Rehabilitation.

The move is coming at a time when unemployment in the region is low. As of September, Lebanon’s unemployment rate was 2.2 percent and Claremont’s was 2.4 percent, according to the New Hampshire Employment Security, Economic & Labor Market Information Bureau.

“The real issue is that these folks have great talents at a time when, economically, New Hampshire is struggling to find good, qualified workers,” Edelblut said.

The time is right for the move because the lease was up on the Mechanic Street office, he said. The savings from ending the lease will leave more money for services, allowing his staff to be more effective and efficient, he said.

He does not have any other plans for closures elsewhere, he said, but “it is definitely something I will look at as leases come due,” he said.

In addition to Lebanon, the program’s other regional offices are located in Berlin, Concord, Keene, Manchester, Nashua and Portsmouth. Some of the regional offices have part-time satellite offices elsewhere, including Claremont. More information about the program, including contact information, is available online at education.nh.gov/career/vocational/index.htm.

The three employees currently based in Lebanon will be relocated, one to Concord, and at least one to Claremont, where they will be situated — a few days per week — within a New Hampshire Works one-stop center, a collaboration between several state agencies and groups offering employment assistance services, Edelblut said.

For his part, Edelblut said he hopes to see vocational rehabilitation counselors spending more time in area school districts to assist in helping students with disabilities transition from school to a productive adulthood.

“The main thing is really trying to engage these folks early and help them create pathways toward getting with the workforce and independent living,” he said.

Debbie Bogle, the director of employment options for Pathways of the River Valley, which has an office on Hanover Street in Lebanon supported Edelblut’s position that the services will continue after the office closes.

Bogle said her agency contracts with the state to provide vocational rehabilitation services in the Lebanon area and will continue to do so.

I do not anticipate that the closing of the Vocational Rehabilitation ... office will have a negative impact on the people in the Lebanon area,” Bogle wrote in an email. “My understanding is that the services will remain the same.”

Pathways’ employment counselors meet clients at job sites if they are working, and, if they aren’t yet working, at libraries and other places with internet.

“We support them to find and/or maintain meaningful employment,” Bogle wrote.

Such supports include assistance in completing a job application, writing a resume, learning how to do job tasks, asking for a raise, asking for an accommodation and learning public bus routes, she said.

“We will be able to do all of these things after the Vocational Rehabilitation office is closed,” Bogle said. “I do hope that people will not hear that the local office is closing and then think that the service has closed as well so please make sure to let people know that they can still get Vocational Rehabilitation services in Lebanon by contacting any Vocational Rehabilitation office.”

April Smith Bean, the programs coordinator of the Lebanon-based Spark Community Center, said she is aware of the Vocational Rehabilitation program, but it is not the only program offering employment support to people with disabilities in Lebanon.

“We definitely have people who talk about that center and utilize it and I’m sure if it wasn’t there they would probably miss it,” Bean said.

But in an informal survey of those at the community center on Monday, Bean said most of the people there weren’t aware of the program.

Instead, the people present at the time pointed to vocational rehabilitation services offered by Pathways and its counterpart in Vermont, Health Care & Rehabilitation Services, she said.

Morgan, West Central’s employment coordinator, said that Pathways and other agencies contract with the state to provide job coaching services, but they do not provide the funds clients might need to take a class or to install adaptive technology at their place of employment.

For those services, people will still need to work with Vocational Rehabilitation.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.