The Difficulty of Going From Disability Payments to the Workforce

Photo credit: Mike Mozart, CC BY 2.0.

Today’s must-read longread comes from the Washington Post:

She wanted her clients to look to her for inspiration, so Teresa Boullemet stamped out her cigarette, popped a peppermint, sprayed herself with perfume and applied fresh lipstick. “Are you going to the farthest corners of the world today?” her assistant asked as she walked to her car. “Roanoke,” Boullemet said. “Say a prayer for us.” And then, carrying pamphlets saying she provides “guidance and choices” to disabled people interested in working, she set out for what may not be the farthest corner of the world, but is certainly one of the farthest corners of Alabama.

Vocational rehabilitation counselor is Boullemet’s official title, a job she does for the state Department of Rehabilitation Services, but she thinks of it in far simpler terms, because the questions she tries to answer seem so simple. Can this person work? Is there someone who would hire them? And if so, how can she connect the two?

The article, which is currently headlined “I am a hard worker” and was previously headlined “Some say people on disability just need to get back to work. It’s not that easy,” alternates between Boullemet’s perspective and Lisa Daunhauer’s, a woman with bipolar disorder, anxiety, and depression who wants to get back into the workforce.

“I have 16 years of experience in a medical office setting. I am a hard worker, dedicated and dependable,” she wrote in her cover letter. “I am currently unemployed, but . . . I could be an asset to your organization.”

She stepped into the career center and walked past a line of brochures. “Does your LIFE need a COACH?” one asked. “Hiring TODAY to Protect Alabama TOMORROW!” promised another. The seat she found was beneath a list of the 40 positions most in demand in the state, none of which, she had learned, applied to her.

Was it too late? she had been asking herself lately. Could a divorced 52-year-old living alone on disability turn it around? Was it her? Or Roanoke?

With Boullemet’s help, Daunhauer gets hired by one of the few employers in the area: Walmart. But, although Daunhauer is in fact a hard worker who wants to succeed, an employer like Walmart doesn’t offer her a lot of leeway in terms of taking time off to care for her son and manage her mental illness.

Plus, Walmart doesn’t pay that much, so it’s not necessarily going to improve Daunhauer’s financial situation.

Walmart, which had raised her hourly wage from $9 to $10, paid her about $1,000 every month. She had recently asked her landlord if that would affect her housing subsidy, but she still didn’t know the answer to that question, or many others. Under the Ticket to Work program, her disability benefits would terminate if she made more than $1,170 per month — “substantial gainful activity” — following the completion of both a nine-month trial work period and a consecutive 36-month period, and who knew if she’d ever make that much at Walmart. Even if she did, or found another job, would it be worth sacrificing the certainty of a government benefit for the uncertainty of the labor force?

Read the whole thing.

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