Grant program launched to help Virginians transition back to work

South Carolina's Department of Employment and Workforce reports there are currently 85,000 job...
South Carolina's Department of Employment and Workforce reports there are currently 85,000 job openings posted across South Carolina, while approximately 116,000 people are receiving unemployment benefits each week.(Storyblocks)
Published: Jun. 11, 2021 at 6:06 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. (WDBJ/Governor’s Office Release) - Governor Ralph Northam has announced a new $3 million investment to pilot the Return to Earn Grant Program, designed to match payments from eligible small businesses to provide new hires with up to $1,000 each to support their transition back into the workforce.

With COVID-related business restrictions dropped, and employment programs getting back to pre-COVID rules regarding job-hunting, people are returning to the workforce, many for the first time since the pandemic began in March 2020.

While many companies are offering hiring bonuses, the Return to Earn Grant Program will serve businesses, with fewer than 100 employees each, that may not have the resources to provide this financial support, said Northam. The launch of this program will be funded through Virginia’s federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA); additional recovery funds may be allocated based on demand.

“Many Virginians who lost their jobs as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic still face a variety of barriers to returning to work, like access to affordable child care, transportation, and a living wage,” said Governor Northam. “These bonuses will serve as an incentive for unemployed workers to get back into the workforce while also helping employers fill vacant jobs. The Virginia Return to Earn Grant Program is about empowering the true catalysts of our economic comeback—Virginia’s workers and small businesses.”

This initiative is designed to match up to $500 that a qualifying small business pays directly to a new employee hired after May 31, 2021, either as a lump sum or in installments, to offset the ongoing costs of child care, transportation or other barriers to re-employment. Funds will only be reimbursed to businesses for new hires in positions that pay at least $15 per hour, and that qualify as W-2 employment, either full- or part-time. To help address workforce shortages in child care, qualifying child care businesses may qualify for up to $500 per new hire without the match requirement.

“For Virginia to fully recover from the impacts of the pandemic on our economy, we need targeted solutions,” said Chief Workforce Development Advisor Dr. Megan Healy. “One in three Virginia workers has applied for unemployment benefits over the course of the pandemic. The new Return to Earn Grant Program will accomplish a dual purpose of helping unemployed Virginians transition back into living wage jobs, particularly in the child care industry, and supporting small businesses with their hiring needs.”

Republican state senators Thomas K. Norment, Jr. and Stephen D. Newman say the program is too one-sided, and are calling for a special session.

“Following the ‘Back to Work’ bonuses we proposed last month, Governor Northam has now proposed ‘Return to Earn.’ His scheme, however, is clearly designed to adhere to a partisan agenda and not in the best interests of workers, employers, or the Commonwealth.”

The senators continued, “Had the Governor called a special session to act on our plan as we suggested on May 25, the proposal he offered today could have been more robust, benefitting employees and employers while rectifying our current employment crisis.

“Requiring businesses to pay bonuses to participate, and mandating a higher wage rate if they do, will result in a limited number of businesses availing themselves of this program. By continuing the $300 per week supplemental unemployment payments, the Governor’s proposal places these state bonuses in competition with the federal government’s, doing little to encourage many to return to the workforce.

“We are a special session away from getting this right.

“While the administration has finally acknowledged the employment crisis with which Virginia’s businesses are having to grapple, they have once again done so by executive edict. Virginia has had to endure single-man rule for over a year now and the Commonwealth is not better off as a result.

“The Governor needs to call the General Assembly into special session to address the employment crisis and amend the 2020-2022 budget to reflect allocations related to the American Rescue Plan Act. And, he needs to do so as soon as possible.”

The launch of the program coincides with the reinstatement of the weekly work search requirement in Virginia, which started the week of May 31, 2021. Virginians receiving unemployment benefits must make contact with employers each week and accept reasonable offers of employment.

June 1, the Commonwealth also reopened its Virginia Career Works Centers for in-person services to ensure Virginians making the transition back to the workforce have access to the resources they need to find high-quality jobs, according to Northam. Jobseekers can continue to access resources virtually through the Virginia Career Works Referral Portal.

For additional information on requirements and to apply for Return to Earn grant funding, small businesses should contact their local Virginia Career Works Center. Answers to frequently asked questions about the program can be found here.

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