An Unprecedented Crisis: The WeCARE Program’s Experience Serving People with Mental and Physical Health Challenges During a Pandemic
Next Generation of Enhanced Employment Strategies Project (NextGen)
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families
- For WeCARE clients, the pandemic exacerbated existing disparities and challenges to entering the workforce. Job opportunities were even more scarce than before for WeCARE clients who faced physical and/or mental health challenges to working. With the spread of the pandemic, it became increasingly difficult to sustain employment as clients worried about exposing themselves or their loved ones to COVID-19. Disruptions in school, child care, and public transportation also made it challenging for some clients to find work.
- Providing services virtually is feasible and has some benefits, but it also has risks. Provider staff and clients found advantages to engaging remotely, including flexibility in attending workshops or appointments, and the ability to offer more one-on-one client support as needed. But staff expressed concerns about not being able to get to know clients in person, and concerns about clients who are not accustomed to using technology.
- The lack of mandatory participation requirements revealed the importance of providing client-centered services. Staff noted they had difficulty getting clients to engage because participation was not mandatory. However, those who did participate appreciated the support they received and found the more individualized attention helpful. In interviews, staff said their experiences during the pandemic reminded them of the importance of connecting clients to a variety of services and resources, and the need to adapt to clients’ changing needs. However, ongoing challenges in hiring staff and a return to mandatory participation in services might mean that staff caseloads will increase, making it difficult to provide individualized support.
- It is important to support both staff and clients. WeCARE clients highlighted how much they appreciated staff responsiveness during the height of the pandemic. They valued having someone to talk to during lockdown, and WeCARE helped them stay motivated in their job search. HRA and service provider leaders recognized the importance of supporting staff morale and technical capacity so staff could focus on being available to clients. Leaders provided more frequent check-ins and trainings, and reassigned staff instead of letting them go when the needs of the program changed. Staff believed the culture created by leaders also encouraged more collaboration and sharing of lessons across different providers.
This study documents how WeCARE served clients before the pandemic, how the program changed in response to the employment and service needs of its clients during the pandemic and economic recession, and the implications of those changes for long-term modifications to the WeCARE model. The lessons WeCARE learned during this tumultuous time could guide other agencies coping with significant shifts in their service delivery environment, including serving people with physical and mental health challenges virtually.
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