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New ADA Rules And Policies For Ohio Public Assistance Programs Take Effect On October 1

The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (ODJFS) has adopted new Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) rules and policies governing the administration of the Ohio Works First (OWF) cash assistance program, Food Stamps, and other public assistance programs for low-income Ohioans. These new rules and policies apply both to ODJFS and the county Departments of Job and Family Services that actually administer the programs.

These ADA rules and policies address longstanding problems regarding the treatment of persons with disabilities who seek or receive public assistance. Many local welfare departments have purged persons with disabilities from the OWF rolls or prevented them from obtaining or even applying for benefits through various means, including draconian and unreasonable application of work-related requirements, application barriers, inadequate disability screenings and assessments, and failure to reasonably accommodate applicants’ and recipients’ disabilities. These actions—in violation of the ADA—were driven in large part by pressure from the state and federal governments for the counties to raise their reported “work participation rates” to avoid federal penalties. It was much easier for the counties to improve their work participation rates by cutting people from the rolls instead of providing appropriate services and work assignments with disabilities.

The Ohio legal aid programs, led by the Ohio Poverty Law Center (OPLC), asked to meet with officers and representatives of ODJFS to discuss these problems and try to negotiate a solution that would protect persons with disabilities and comply with the ADA. After more than six months of discussions—including extensive legal research and drafting proposals—the low-income advocates and ODJFS agreed to implement a set of comprehensive ADA rules, policies, form and notices to improve compliance with the ADA and state disability discrimination laws. The new rules were published for public comment and approved by the legislative Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review (JCARR), and they will become law on October 1, 2014.

The new ADA rules and policies address a number of key areas, including but not limited to: screening for disabilities; employability appraisals and assessments; self-sufficiency contracts; reasonable accommodations of persons with disabilities (including the enumeration of specific examples); hardship extensions of the OWF time limits; and training requirements for county agency staff. They also address certain common misconceptions, such as the tendency of caseworkers to confuse the very different legal definitions of “disability” under the ADA and Social Security Act and to underestimate the broad scope of permissible reasonable accommodations. In addition, county departments are required to adopt (and file with ODJFS) detailed ADA county compliance plans. If fully implemented and enforced, the new ODJFS ADA rules and the mandatory county ADA compliance plan should benefit persons with disabilities seeking public assistance by: (1) ensuring that persons with disabilities are given more appropriate services and work assignments so that they can attain greater economic self-sufficiency; and (2) ending or reducing the practice of sanctioning public assistance recipients for failing to comply with inappropriate or impossible work assignments that do not take account of their disabilities.

OPLC and the Ohio legal aid programs will monitor the implementation of the new ADA rules and policies. In the meantime, anyone with questions regarding the new ADA rule and policies should feel free to contact attorney Michael Smalz of the Ohio Poverty Law Center at (614) 221-7201 or msmalz@ohiopovertylaw.org.

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Changes to Ohio Protection Order Law Take Effect on September 17, 2014

House Bill 309 (HB 309) makes several important changes to Ohio protection order laws and brings Ohio law into compliance with the federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). HB 309 became law on September 17, 2014. As a result, Ohio no longer faces the possible loss of more than $8 million per year in federal VAWA funding. These changes to Ohio law should also benefit many victims of domestic violence, stalking, sexual assault, or juvenile violence who seek protection orders from Ohio courts. Notably, these changes apply to all types of protection orders, including but not limited to, domestic violence civil protection orders, civil stalking protection orders, civil sexually oriented offense protection orders, juvenile protection orders, criminal protection orders and temporary protection orders.

Specifically, HB 309 prohibits any court, sheriff’s office, or other state or local unit of government from charging a victim who files for a protection order any fee, cost or deposit in connection with the modification, enforcement, dismissal, or withdrawal of a protection order or consent agreement. In addition, the new law prohibits any court, sheriff’s office, or other unit of state or local government from charging a victim who files a petition or motion for a protection order any fee, cost or deposit in connection with the filing, issuance, registration, modification, enforcement, dismissal, withdrawal or service of a witness subpoena. Existing law already prohibited courts or other governmental units from charging any fees, costs or deposits in connection with the filing or service of protection orders or related petitions and motions, but victims were sometimes charged fees or costs when they dismissed their protection order case, when the judge or magistrate terminated their case, or when they used subpoenas to bring witnesses into court to testify in their court cases. HB 309 closes those gaps in the fee prohibition statutes.

On the other hand, courts and other units of state or local government may now charge the respondent or defendant (alleged abuser or stalker) fees, costs or deposits in protection order cases, regardless of whether the court issues the requested protection order or approves a consent agreement between the parties. Previously, the courts were prohibited from charging certain fees or costs to any party in a protection order proceeding, but under the new law courts will have the discretion to charge or not charge such fees or costs to the respondent or defendant.

There is another significant change that applies to all Ohio court proceedings, not just protection order cases. HB 309 prohibits the taxation of interpreter’s fees as costs to be paid by a party if the party to be taxed is indigent. This provision protects the due process rights of Limited English Proficient (LEP) parties in the Ohio justice system.

The Family Violence Prevention Center Advisory Council of the Ohio Department of Public Safety and its members—including but not limited to the Ohio Domestic Violence Network (ODVN), the Ohio Supreme Court, the Action Ohio Coalition for Battered Women, and the Ohio Poverty Law Center—played a key role in drafting and advocating for the passage of HB 309.

Anyone with questions regarding HB 309 should feel free to contact attorney Mike Smalz of the Ohio Poverty Law Center at phone number 614-221-7201 or at msmalz@ohiopovertylaw.org.

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PIPP Plus Program Has Eliminated Half Billion Dollars in Low Income Customers’ Utility Arrears in 2011

Good news for low-income Ohioans struggling to pay their utility bills:  major changes to Ohio’s Percentage of Income Payment Plan (PIPP) program that went into effect in November 2010 have lowered costs for customers.

The new program, PIPP Plus, lowered combined gas and electric monthly PIPP payments from 15% of the PIPP customer’s income to 12% (6% gas and 6% electric).  Moreover, if customers make their full monthly payment on time, they accrue no new utility arrears (for the difference between the PIPP payment and the actual bill charge), and one twenty-fourth of their existing electric or natural gas that is erased.  If a customer makes 24 consecutive payments, in full and on time, the entire debt will be forgiven.  Income eligibility remained at or under 150% of the federal poverty level for a household.

The Office of Consumers’ Counsel (OCC) has analyzed data for 2011, the first full year of PIPP Plus.  The data is remarkably positive.  On average, more than 72% of the payments made by customers enrolled in PIPP Plus during 2011 were submitted in full and on time.  The utilities also reported that nearly $500 million in arrearage credits were awarded to PIPP Plus customers who were current with their payments.

The average monthly PIPP Plus payment was slightly under $54 in 2011.  This averages to approximately $647 paid throughout the year towards electric and natural gas bills.

The PIPP Plus changes did not materialize overnight.  Beginning in the late 1990s, legal aid advocates—including Noel Morgan (Legal Aid Society of Southwest Ohio), Ellis Jacobs (Advocates for Basic Legal Equality), Joe Meissner (Legal Aid Society of Cleveland), Mike Walters (Pro Seniors), and Mike Smalz and Joe Maskovyak (Ohio Poverty Law Center)—joined with OCC in pushing for lower monthly PIPP payments and a PIPP arrearage crediting program.  Advocates won a partial victory with the passage of the first electric restructuring bill—Senate Bill 3—which eliminated pre-2000 PIPP electric debt for many elderly and disabled electric customers.  Additional years of advocacy—converging with the desire of Ohio Department of Development staff to incentivize more consistent and timely monthly payments by PIPP customers (and fewer resulting service disconnections and reconnections)—culminated in the adoption of the PIPP Plus program rules in November 2010.

The PIPP Plus program has not eliminated all payment, disconnection and reconnection problems for low-income utility consumers in Ohio.  PIPP Plus customers still have a higher energy burden (percentage of utility payments relative to income) than middle- and upper-class households.  Moreover, the PUCO has taken steps to pressure utility companies, especially natural gas companies, to move more quickly to terminate service to customers who fall behind in their payments.  PIPP Plus customers who miss two consecutive monthly PIPP payments can be terminated from PIPP and have their service disconnected.  Nevertheless, the implementation of the PIPP Plus program—taken as a whole—was a huge victory for low-income utility advocates and should ultimately wipe out billions of dollars in low-income customer utility arrears.

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New Legislation Would Extend Unemployment Compensation Benefits to Some Part-Time Ohio Workers

HB 484, sponsored by Rep. Mike Duffey (R-Worthington), would create the so-called Shared Work Ohio program.  Under the bill, if a Shared Work program is approved by the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (ODJFS), employees whose hours are reduced instead of being laid off will maintain pension and health care benefits and would be eligible to receive 26 weeks of unemployment compensation benefits on a pro rata basis.  Any unemployment compensation benefits paid to those part-time employees would be charged to the account of the participating employer.

This legislation would be a win–win for employers and employees.  Employers could retain valuable employees by cutting their hours instead of terminating their employment, and thereby avoid expensive retraining and rehiring when business demand recovers.  Employees would benefit because HB 484 would help some workers to keep their jobs during a severe economic downturn and they could receive unemployment benefits despite their part-time employment.

The Ohio House of Representatives passed HB 484 on May 24, 2012.  The Senate Insurance, Commerce, and Labor Committee is now considering HB 484, and it may be given priority consideration when the General Assembly reconvenes this fall.

To urge Senate passage of this legislation, people should contact their state senators as well as the Senate Committee chairman, Senator Kevin Bacon, at (614) 466-8064.

Anyone who has questions concerning HB 484 should feel free to contact Michael Smalz of the Ohio Poverty Law Center at (614) 824-2502 or msmalz@ohiopovertylaw.org.

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New Ohio Human Trafficking Law

On June 27, 2012, Governor Kasich signed the new Ohio Human Trafficking Law, House Bill 262 (HB 262), after it was passed by the Ohio General Assembly in mid-June.  It becomes law on September 26, 2012.

Human trafficking—i.e., trafficking of persons, usually undocumented immigrants and often minors, who are forced into prostitution or slave labor—is a serious and growing problem in Ohio and across the nation.  In fact, Toledo, Ohio, has been identified as a major transportation hub for human trafficking victims.  HB 262 provides additional remedies and services for all victims of human trafficking, but also contains provisions specifically protecting or helping minor victims of human trafficking.

Key provisions of the new law include:

  • Annual publication of statistical data on trafficking by the Ohio Attorney General (AG).
  • Development of training for peace officers by the AG and the Ohio Peace Officer Training Academy.
  • Development of posters providing information regarding National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline and other helpful information.
  • Authorizes awards of victim compensation monies from Reparations Fund to minor trafficking victims who are minors, despite otherwise disqualifying prior criminal convictions or delinquency adjudications
  • Creates the Victims of Human Trafficking Fund with money obtained from traffickers under forfeiture law to fund services for trafficking victims.
  • Creates a civil cause of action for trafficking victims.
  • Enhances criminal penalties for trafficking in persons and related obstruction of justice offenses.
  • Authorizes juvenile court diversion and expungement of prostitution-related delinquency offenses for trafficking victims who were minors at the time of their violations.
  • New juvenile court procedure for “expungement” of a conviction or delinquent-child adjudication for solicitation, loitering to engage in solicitation, or prostitution, resulting form that person’s having been a trafficking victim when s/he was a minor.
    • May apply at any time (no waiting period) for an order of expungement.

Anyone with questions about HB 262 should feel free to contact attorney Michael Smalz of the Ohio Poverty Law Center at (614)824-2502 or msmalz@ohiopovertylaw.org.

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Governor Kasich Signs New Collateral Sanctions Law

On June 26, 2012, Governor Kasich signed Senate Bill 337 (SB 337), which removes, or creates mechanisms for removing, a wide range of so-called “collateral sanctions” against ex-offenders and prisoners who are reentering society.  These collateral consequences create major barriers to prisoner reentry and encourage recidivism by ex-offenders by making it more difficult for ex-offenders to find a job, attain economic self-sufficiency, and/or gain a stable, productive life.  SB 337 will limit or reduce many of those barriers.  Other states have enacted or are considering similar legislation, but SB 337 is one of the most progressive and far-reaching collateral sanctions laws in the country.

SB 337 becomes law on September 25, 2012.  However, some provisions will actually take effect 90 days after that date because the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections must issue more detailed rules implementing the statutory provisions during that 90-day period.

Key provisions in the final version of SB 337 include:

  • Removal of occupational licensing prohibitions for certain occupations including optical dispensers, motor vehicle salvage-related jobs, construction workers, hearing aid dealers and fitters, private investigators, security guards, and cosmetologists.
  • Authorizing an ex-offender to apply to the Deputy Director of the Division of Parole and Community Services or the court of common pleas of the county in which the ex-offender resides for a “certificate of qualification for employment” (with an expedited process) for the purpose of removing employment barriers and restrictions in a wide range of occupations.
  • Immunity for employers from negligent hiring or retention claims
  • Expanded opportunities for sealing of criminal and juvenile delinquency records.
  • Various modifications to juvenile court procedures and its dispositions, including places of detention, sealing of juvenile records, case transfers, etc.
  • Driver’s license changes—discretionary instead of mandatory suspension; payment of reinstatement fees in installments; reduced penalties for driving under suspension or for violating the state financial responsibility law; and elimination of requirement for suspension of license of any person who is named in a motor vehicle accident report that alleges that the person was uninsured at the time of the accident and the person then fails to give to the Registrar proof of financial responsibility; etc.
  • Creates a rebuttable presumption against a court or CSEA imputing income to an incarcerated or institutionalized parent when calculating child support
  • Adds a new child support imputation of income factor (militating against imputing income) for the parent’s decreased earning capacity because of a felony conviction.
  • Permits a court or CSEA, when calculating child support, to disregard a parent’s additional income form overtime or additional employment when the additional income was generated primarily to support a new or additional family member, or under other appropriate circumstances.
  • Requires a court or CSEA to collect information about preexisting child support orders for other children of the same parents when calculating a child support order to ensure that the total of all orders for the children of both parents does not exceed the amount that would have been ordered in a single order.
  • Permits a court, pursuant to a request made in a contempt action, to grant limited driving privileges to a person whose driver’s license is suspended because the person is in default under a child support order.
  • Creates a rebuttable presumption against a court or CSEA imputing income to an incarcerated or institutionalized parent when calculating child support.
  • Revises the rebuttable presumption against imputing income to a parent who is receiving means-tested public assistance benefits to limit the presumption to a parent who is receiving “monetary income” from means-tested public assistance benefits (e.g., OWF, DA, SSI and means-tested VA benefits).  This could mean that a parent’s receipt of Food Stamps would not trigger the presumption.

Although the last change might harm some low-income parents, the bill as a whole should greatly benefit many ex-offenders and/or low-income Ohioans.

Anyone with questions about SB 337 should feel free to contact attorney Michael Smalz of the Ohio Poverty Law Center at (614)824-2502 or msmalz@ohiopovertylaw.org.

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