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Local residents look for employment to retain SNAP benefits

Brandon Paykamian • Updated Dec 21, 2017 at 9:06 AM

With less than three months before work requirements take effect for food stamp recipients in the state, dozens of people visited the Northeast Tennessee Career Center in Johnson City Wednesday to look for jobs and learn about the rule change.

Beginning Feb. 1, many recipients of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, will have to enroll in job training, find work or volunteer an average of 20 hours a week. The requirements were in place before 2008, but in the midst of the national recession, where unemployment soared and jobs were scarce, the state received a waiver to allow recipients to get assistance without working or seeking jobs.

“It’s something they are going to need to be completing to be able to receive SNAP benefits,” Charlie Davis of the Tennessee Department of Human Services said.

To help beneficiaries meet the requirements, the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development and the Mobile American Job Center held a career, education and resource fair Wednesday. Available staff offered help with interviewing skills and resume writing and conducted free workshops to help people get back into the job market.

“Our goal here today is to make sure we are connecting our customers with resources and employment opportunities to get their 20 hours a week,” Davis said of the event.

A representative of Johnson City-based call center Allied Dispatch was at the fair conducting hiring outreach, looking to fill 50 full- and part-time positions.

“We want to ensure that the people impacted by this change are aware of new opportunities that exist close to them,” Human Services Commissioner Danielle Barnes said in an emailed press release about the event. “These 50 positions Allied Dispatch is looking to fill are just the beginning of assistance we’re providing to help build a thriving Tennessee.”

With so many looking for work since the designation was reinstated by Gov. Bill Haslam in September, the organizers of Wednesday’s event had their hands full.

“We have them register with us so we can help provide job seeking services. Once they do that, they go see a DHS representative because most of them came here specifically for that. On their way out, they receive legal aid, services for housing, education and things like that,” Jacob Bolen, a local employment representative for the American Job Center, said. “The reason we have so many people coming in today is because time is running out on the changes that are going to be made.”

But Bolen said some people visited Wednesday to check on their SNAP status and resolve any issues they’ve had with the new stipulations.

When the changes go into effect, people considered able-bodied are required to find work or volunteer, rules that have caused some SNAP beneficiaries anxiety.

For folks like Randy Howard, keeping their heads above water is often easier said than done. Since suffering an injury at a construction job a few years ago, he said he has had a lot of ups and downs as he’s tried to keep a job, and now he’s trying to help provide for his disabled wife.

“My wife is epileptic and has a lot of medical problems, and SNAP is forcing her to come here. Well, she’s not able to come, so I come here instead,” he said. “I’m able to work. I want to work, but she’s not able to work. We need to be able to make a living, and we don’t want to be on SNAP any more than anybody else does.

“SNAP is just keeping our heads above — not even above — below water. It keeps food on the table, but it doesn’t keep a roof over your head, the lights on or the bill collectors at bay.”

Before walking into the local career center to see what he could find, he said he didn’t hold any animosity toward the work requirements, but he said he wished more people understood the precarious position of working class people throughout the nation.

“I don’t have anything against the law itself, it’s just a matter of how they implemented it. Some people need some compassion, and some people just see numbers,” he said. “It’s hard these days if you get behind. You can’t get back up without somebody helping you out or giving you a decent job.”

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