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Feb 11, 2022

Joining Carol Pankow in the VRTAC-QM Studio is Mark Erlichman, Deputy Director, Vocational Rehabilitation Employment Division, California Department of Rehabilitation. In this episode of Manager Minute, Mark covers the idea of Rapid Engagement. The idea behind it is to get customers in and move as quickly as possible to succeed. The California DORS Team has a variety of initiatives that they are working on. Mark and Carol will chat about a handful of those projects.


Learn about California’s expedited enrollment process, resource navigators, and the sector-based service teams.


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VRTAC-QM Manager Minute: Get in and Get er’ Done! Making VR Processes Work How California Makes VR Work for Customers!


Speaker1: Manager Minute brought to you by the VRTAAC for Quality Management, Conversations powered by VR, one manager at a time, one minute at a time. Here is your host Carol Pankow.


Carol: Welcome to the manager minute, joining me in the studio today is Mark Erlichman, Deputy Director, Vocational Rehabilitation Employment Division with California Department of Rehabilitation. So Mark, thanks for being here. How are things going in California?


Mark: Thank you so much for the invitation. Things in California are going about the same way they're going across the country. We're coping, we're managing, but I'm excited that we're continuing to look at improving. So in spite of the pandemic, we've been able to stay open and we've been able to sell, serve our consumers.


Carol: Glad to hear it. I'm glad to hear that. Well, today's topic covers this idea of rapid engagement, and the idea behind that is to get customers in and move as quickly as possible to succeed. You'd spoken to me a couple of weeks ago about the saying you like to go by. Our customers are and must feel more important than the process. And I hear a lot of Joe Xavier in that statement and eager to talk more about the variety of initiatives that you have in California. I believe that you have a list of over 20 projects that you and the California DOR team are working on, and so we're going to just chat about a handful of those today. So Marc, can you tell our listeners a little bit more about you, your career, the agency, like how many customers you're serving?


Mark: Sure, thank you. As you mentioned, I'm the deputy director and our employment division here. So we provide services to the general consumers when you have a blind field services division that worked with individual or blind, but we work with pretty much everybody else. And so in any given year, we probably serve somewhere between 80 to 90 thousand participants. So that includes our potentially eligible students with disabilities. So we have about thirteen hundred staff. We work out of about 80 dedicated offices and dozens of other locations, including one stops now called American Job Centers. So I started my career as a counselor way back in nineteen ninety four the dark ages pre-internet and it was right out of college, got my degree in rehabilitation counseling. But since I started, I've been very fortunate to move up within our department and I became a supervisor, a manager, then a district administrator. And then I joined the executive team in about 2012 as an assistant deputy director. And since 2019, I've been the deputy director and like I mentioned and responsible for VR Student Services and also our Business Services team.


Carol: I love to hear that I love it when people are kind of grown up through the system, and I think it's really cool. We've got that good opportunity working with Joe Xavier. I think a lot of him and his really awesome leadership style and his innovativeness.


Mark: Yeah, he's great. It's actually kind of fun working with him because typically I felt people try to be cautious and push back when you're trying to be innovative. Joe actually pushes us in the other direction. If we're not being innovative enough, we hear it.


Carol: Oh yeah, that's Joe for you. He pushes all of us, even if we don't work for him, makes the whole country better. I love it. So you told me when we were having our conversation before that consumers never more motivated in their life than the first moment that they engage us. So can you talk a little about your expedited enrollment process and what that entails and how that's impacted your data?


Mark: Sure, absolutely. And you're right. Our approach to customer service really starts from day one. When I was a counselor working with consumers, I realized, like you mentioned, that there never really are going to be more motivated than that very first time they make the decision to go back to work or return to work. They look us up or they find a department, they make an appointment, they make arrangements for transportation. They may need to make arrangements for childcare. They may take two or three buses to get to our office. Then they sit in the waiting room. They may sit through an orientation and then they're given a stack of forms to fill out and told to come back later. And they go through all of that just on faith alone because they don't know where there's actually anything in it for them. And we did ask that question is when is that individual ever going to be more motivated than at that point? So rather than putting them off by telling them we have 60 days to find you eligible, so don't expect to hear from us, what we do is we actually try to do everything we can that very first day. So we really look at what a consumer or an applicant wants. They really want answer to the three questions, which is how can you help me? Can you help me at all? And when can we get started? So what we decided to do, recognizing that we want to keep that momentum going is that we wanted to make an eligibility determination and start the process, keep that forward progress and keep their momentum going from the very beginning.

So about three years ago, we began rolling out what we call expedited enrollment. This process supports our train rehabilitation counselors and they are all trained. All our counselors have master's degree. We use their professional judgment to make a determination about somebody's eligibility, and we started with the understanding of the federal regulations. Support this, then there's never, ever been a requirement for medical or school records to be put in the case file. There's never been a requirement for additional evaluations or sending somebody for testing. So what our counselors do is whenever appropriate, and it's almost quite frequently appropriate, our counselors make a determination based on a readily apparent decision. Ability that they have a disabling condition and through a skilled interview that they can benefit from services for us, one of the things we took a look at is what is the inherent risk in doing that? We found out that less than two percent of our consumers have ever found not eligible for services due to the severity of their disability. In those cases, we would have to do a trial work experience anyway. And the vast majority of individuals come in and are great historians about their disability.

So we did a statewide rollout to all of our offices that included staff training and set the expectation that expedited enrollment or finding somebody eligible based on counselors observation is our standard method of determining eligibility and requesting lengthy records or ordering testing or further evaluations will always be the exception here. So we did statewide training. Like I mentioned, we included Joe and we conclude our directorate. Many of US executives went participate in the training, and we even had a staff attorney come out to assure staff that this is consistent with the regulations and nobody's going to get in trouble. We reinforce the message and continue to reinforce the message through a couple of things. We changed our services application form to reflect the enrollment process, recognizing the consumer is the best historians. So we asked them How can we help you? We generate reports of utilization and expedited enrollment, so we see how many individuals are found eligible using this process throughout the state. And we're also going to be updating our regulations to clearly and unmistakably reflect that this is the process that we use. As I mentioned, the counselor has always been able to make that eligible determination on relevant professional judgment. And if they have a readily apparent disability, we just help define that. So how are we doing? You asked.


Carol: I did ask, How's that going with the data?


Mark: All right. So even though cultural change and changing old habits is really difficult, we are actually in that as of the end of December of 2021. So as of this last December, about two thirds of all of our applicants are being determined eligible for services using expedited enrollment, and we're defining that as being found eligible within five days of application.


Carol: Wow!


Mark: In fact, 40 percent of the consumers that apply for services in December were found eligible on the actual same day of application. So they're actually everything was put into the system, including their eligibility determination. And for us,


Carol: that's fantastic!


Mark: Again, from where we were to having two out of three consumers are found eligible within the first five days is tremendous and we did look at the data. I do believe that that's fantastic. But for me, that really isn't enough because a consumer doesn't really care about eligibility determination. That's our process. And like we mentioned, the person should always be more important than the process. It really is about how quickly can we get somebody from interest to services? And so we've also been keeping track of planned timelines, how quickly somebody gets from eligibility to plan, and we've seen a reduction in that as well. So not only people have been found eligible more quickly, but their plans are also implemented much more quickly as well.


Carol: Well, I want to underscore what you're saying because I know a lot of agencies are really struggling with this area. There's a lot of old practices and I remember it even being at Minnesota Blind and people were requesting this medical report and all of that. I'm like, Listen, like you are a trained professional rehabilitation counselor. You can see this impairment as individuals coming in the door. You're going through that skilled interview, you're being able to assess that. We're able to benefit them. Like, why are we running people through these other paces? Because I think sometimes in VR, we're almost exhausting. Like it's exhausting for the customer, right?


Mark: And I don't think any one of us would want to go through the process that we put our consumers through. To me, that's always the best test of where you need to go. Would you accept that for yourself or a family member?


Carol: Absolutely. So how staff have they embraced this? Like, are people really like they're seeing what a change this has made?


Mark: I mean, universally, no. But the vast maj ority of our staff are seeing this as a tremendous boon to their jobs. I mean, they really like making that consumer feel like they're the most important person that they're working with. And really those individuals that are hesitant in this counselor and sometimes have been hesitant. It's been really around habit and it's been around fear. And so as we address those, we're seeing more and more people embrace this, and we did learn some lessons from the very beginning. We thought that everybody would be excited. And after a while when we recognize that there are some counselors that weren't, we went back through and generate a report. Change your application to really got communicated clearly that it's the expectation so people should feel comfortable.


Carol: That's excellent. And I feel like it's putting back kind of that professionalism into VR that counselors may have felt was stripped away from some of the more case management aspects of WIOA and all the data entry and all of that. It's like, this is a classic example of using your skills and what you learned in your graduate degree and making something awesome happening and making such a connection with that customer right off the get go.


Mark: Absolutely. And would also really help was communicating to the counselors that we're trusting your professional judgment and the operative word here is trust, and you're not sure that you can still request. Records, you can't still work with the consumer and do further evaluations. You don't have to and you shouldn't have to. But once councilors understood that it's their judgment and so for us, two out of three is great. I'm looking for more than that. We don't know what the exact right percentage is, but we do know that whenever possible, that momentum that we talked about, that momentum should continue for all of our consumers.


Carol: That's awesome. I love it. So let's shift a little bit to talk about another project you have cooking with your councilors, and that's the councilors getting in and working immediately with those customers at risk of losing their job or needing to retain their employment. So what does that look like? Are you seeing some success with this?


Mark: A great question, actually. I think what you're referring to is what we call our Rapid Engagement. And so I think that's kind of the theme of this, and we just try to find a catchy name for it. But in simple words, it's kind of keeping with Jo's message and Jo's message to us and we've ever heard, and it's been very, very clear that we need to meet our participants where they are. It doesn't matter where we are, we need to meet them where they are. And we're not just talking about physically because that's important too, but we're really are talking about where they are in their lives and in their job search and or in their employment. And so recognizing that not all applicants are at the same place, some could be employed right now. Others may have been unemployed for a long period of time, but they're all in a different place. We wanted to stop making everybody go through the same linear sequential process, which is again, process shouldn't Trump person. And so our pilot involves assigning a specialist counselor within a district to what we call a Rapid Engagement Caseload. So their primary responsibility is to assist individuals that will meet at least one of the following criteria. There were a former QR consumer. We still have available that information from their former case, so we're not starting over or is a referral from a public or private organization that serves individuals with disabilities like a kind of behavioral health program or a rehabilitation hospital or an agency serving the Blind or the Deaf and Visually Impaired? Clearly, they've already been determined that they have a disability or they have a readily apparent disability, which is that we have then go through Expedited Enrollment.

So it's one of those conditions, and they either require assistance in regaining employment because they just recently lost their job due to a reduction in work hours or to a layoff. They require some type of job retention services because their personal conditions have changed or their employment conditions have changed. They may have an exacerbation or they may have gotten promoted, or the job duties may have changed and they need some assistance or that there require some services from us to promote within the same business. And so they clearly are eligible for services and they need services immediately. Why wouldn't we treat them a little differently and really expedite their services? And so what the counselor does is using Expedited Enrollment, they are found eligible and typically at that same time, they write the plan because what do you really need to know if somebody wants to keep their job? There's not a lot of planning involved. The effort in the it should be OK, what services do you need? But you're not doing job search. You're not doing research into the occupation. Where you really are doing is you're helping somebody, as you know, if you need to keep your job, you probably can't wait two weeks, three weeks or three months.


Carol: Right. Process shouldn't Trump, person? I love that. I just have to say that statement.


Mark: Absolutely.


Carol: That's awesome.


Mark: And the consumers have been extremely grateful. I mean, the feedback that we've gotten from the counselors and the notes and the thanks not just from our participants, but some of the employers have reached out as well that to thank us for how should I put it in a nice enough way because I'm government, we didn't act like government,


Carol: Which should be the goal of all we are. We don't want to be that bureaucratic government, even though we're in the government. Very cool. So are you seeing some good success from that then with people as far as your numbers, then with helping individuals to retain employment or regain employment, is that playing out in your data?


Mark: Well, we're not seeing anybody drop out pre-plan, which is always fun because it's always so discouraging when you see somebody who comes out to request for services and then before anything even gets started, they change their mind or they go away. So we don't see that for somebody goes online right away. And we're not seeing people drop out of their plans due to lack of contact or which is typically the most common. And so the success rate. And again, this is relatively new, relatively new pilot. So I can't say, look, we have a 65 or 85 percent success rate, which is I'm guessing that's where we're going to end up because of what we're seeing. But what we're seeing is the consumers are much more engaged and the services are getting at the consumer much more rapidly. So we're hopeful. And from what we're seeing, this isn't going to be a pilot for long.


Carol: Well, that's half the battle. I mean, I think the whole country is struggling with this because artists say they will hold up their statistics in a fall or spring CSAVR conference. And you're like, Oh my gosh, you know, all the people exiting before playing and people closing because you can't find them unable to locate and all of that. And so how do you get at this piece? I think there's going to be states definitely clamoring for your number later to try to talk to you about what you're doing because I know I've talked to many people and they're really. Struggling around this area,


Mark: And we continue to as well, that's where we're trying, and we don't expect that out of the 20 plus efforts that we're trying to modernize, that they're all going to work and I hope they don't because if they all work, then we're not trying hard enough and we're not being creative enough and we're not pushing the envelope. We're hoping that some of these do stick for us. It's important to keep data and to track these. In the past, we would try these efforts and never ask the question, is it working? And we're trying to approach these projects totally differently. They all have project charters, they all have evaluation plans, and the expectation is that we do more of what's working and stop doing things that aren't.


Carol: I love that. I love that. I think that's the message right there. Underscore VR, end of our conversation. Listen to Marc, let's do this. I like that you guys are trying a lot of things. I think sometimes people are really afraid and they've been stuck. You get stuck in patterns of doing things. It's taken that step back and taking a look and going, Why are we doing it that way? It is not working. It's not working out. So that's really cool. I know you have another newer pilot, you have a million of them, but this one with some positions that you added to your five districts, I think you called them Resource Navigators as part of a response team. So how does that pilot work?


Mark: We're calling it our Community Resource Navigator position, and we've got 14 districts in the state, and so we're piloting in 5 of them. And these are 5 districts that were particularly hit hard by 1 of our many or a couple of our our many disasters in California, particularly some of the fire impacted counties. And so these Community Resource Navigators and gauge applicants can eligible participants really early on the process. And again, that early engagement, we may not be able to do a Rapid Engagement in terms of providing them plan services because there's still some planning that needs to occur. For us, it's important for the consumers to continue that momentum. And so when our staffing engage with our applicants and our or eligible consumers, the plan is to help them gain the support and assistance that they may need down the road. It's not just telling them, here you need to go. Apply for financial aid if you want to go to school or here's the county welfare program. Or here's the Medicaid office apply for health care services or here in Snap or Food or Nutrition Assistance Program. These are the things you may benefit from. These are the supports that we think would help you matriculate into your employment program. There's no reason to wait to apply for them. And by the way, we're not just referring you there. The Sierra has actually walked the individual through and help them with the application process, and so they get to know your local welfare staff. They get to know the nutrition, the food stamp. When we call our peer the Snap program and they get to know the housing authority staff and they work with our consumers or applicants to help them apply for those services, they'll connect them with Independent Living Center.

And so the idea is if somebody is coming to us because they absolutely have immediate needs and we know the hierarchy of needs, you know, if you don't have shelter or food, employment seems really far off. So we have some consumers that'll come. We'll help them. They'll actually get get on some financial assistance, then we'll get some housing assistance and they'll say, OK, let me stabilize and I'll come back so they don't start a plan, then decide that they're not ready for employment. They get the support they need right away. And those individuals that continue with us will have the support and the wraparound supports. And really, it really is what we call the application that whole person approach, which is it's not just about employment, it's about the whole person. So when we're talking about evaluation for us, we're evaluating the crowds by the number of individuals that are closed unsuccessfully. We want to see a reduction of applicants that go through the process just to drop out. And we are we're seeing, I think for us started this about a year and a half ago. So we're starting to see some of the first evaluations. And what we're seeing is there is a dramatic reduction in the number of individuals that were closed out successfully that received the CRN services because they didn't drop out because, well, they didn't have a place to stay. They didn't drop out because they had an exacerbation to their health and they became dependent on family support again and they connected them in the living services. So we are seeing that and I think we're optimistic that that's one of these things that we're talking about and say, Yeah, we'll do more of that.


Carol: I think that's going to be exciting. I think when you look longitudinally at that data and you go, you take it out now you're out a year and a half, you start taking that data out two and a half, three, four, five years. I think you're probably going to see some probably amazing results because like you say, the person doesn't have food. It's hard to worry about. Like, I'm going to get this job, but I don't even have anything to eat and I'm starving, and I have to go to an interview and try to be on my best foot. Or I didn't have a place to wash my clothes or I couldn't take a shower or do any of that. It's getting back to that. Yeah, Maslow's hierarchy of needs, like you said, very important. That is super interesting. You also have staff that are embedded in business. I thought this was really cool and you were talking about some staff embedded within an HR department. Can you tell me a little more about that?


Mark: Absolutely. Recognizing that business is a customer of our system, again, that was have been, but it's really emphasized through WIOA. We reached out to employers and said, OK, ask them, what do you need? So we. And one of the things that came back is that they wanted our assistance, they wanted to ask questions, but they wanted a single point of contact because they don't have to call a new person every day. They don't want to hear from multiple people reaching out to them. So we said, Great, will for this business, here's a single point of contact, and that's where we're talking as we were brainstorming. One of my managers pointed out saying, Well, we really are looking at more outstations and we really are looking at more of a mobile workforce and this is pre-COVID. So we actually were meeting people in person. And so the single point of contact and approach that employers saying, would you be interested in having a person come out and spend time with you? And they said, Yeah, that would be great. I mean, would you be willing to give them some office space and say, yes, we would be happy to do that and give her some office space in their HR shop. And this is a really, really very large employer. It's a military contractor. They've got thousands of employees in their facility in that county. And for us, that's ample opportunity to kind of make a difference there so that started with two days a month of office hours. And it's kind of quiet start because nobody knew she was there. And then when she introduced herself, they have a disability affinity group.So she started attending that and talking about rehab and rehab services. And so their employees with disabilities or family members of employees with disabilities became informed about what we did and why we were there. Managers who had issues or questions about disability or accommodations, they would have started approaching her. And so in the first 3 months after about the first 6 months, then COVID hit and then now we've been providing that same support virtually like the rest of the world. But in the first 3 or 4 months, we got six referrals from that employer. There are other self-referral or they're referred by one of their managers. All 6 were found eligible. Developed 5 plans within just within a few days of application because we just met them there at the employment side there, right and the 6th applicant that we didn't write a plan for or we worked on a plan, but we didn't actually implement. The plan was because their supervisor and the employee said, Oh, we can do that. We don't need you. We don't need your help. Thank you for the information. And they went ahead and provided the accommodation as the employee and that employee didn't need our services and the other 5 were serving. And really, we offered them services, job retention, job promotion, but really marketed in two ways. One, we can help them with their hiring needs because this counselor can also set up hiring events, and we want to help your employees remain productive for you as the employer. And so they really appreciated that.


Carol: Everybody's looking for that. I mean, they're looking at ways to retain their employees. And if they're struggling, you may love that where your counselor is able to go in and maybe they're struggling, they don't know the right thing to do. And even though they might have like a disability specialist on staff, sometimes I find those folks really aren't, you know, the people that are kind of charged with that role. So you're bringing this other lens in and really helping support those individuals so they can keep their employment. That is excellent, really awesome.


Mark: You're totally right because we found that most of the time where their disability expert is typically somebody who is a diversity person, and so they've got a wide range of responsibilities. And for us, we like our niche. We are really good with disability and they don't have to be experts because they have access to that expert and really become a really good partnership. In fact, that employer has several other sites in California, and they're asking for the same. There was another really large employer in the Southern California area that we started talking with right before the pandemic, that we have a follow up meeting later this spring to do that as well and were literally looking at having somebody there every week.


Carol: That is super cool. I bet that has to be really rewarding for that counselor again, looking at ways of developing work differently so the counselors they feel engaged in and excited about their work and want to keep working for VR and not leaving us for the VA or whatever else. But that's gotta be super Rewarding.


Mark: And absolutely anybody is thinking of this for us. Just bringing in the employer was really enthusiastic and we actually had to sign non-disclosure because the military contractor, there's a background check. But just offering that free, you know, free service to them and free support to them, they're extremely grateful. And if you want to change an employer's culture, make it really easy for them to hire, promote and employ and recruit individuals with disabilities because that's what changes it isn't wanting to be more disability accessible and more disability friendly. It's actually having the experience and having the employees that reflect the world for us, the rest of the state.


Carol: Yeah, you're spot on. I know when I talked to joe on a previous podcast, I love Joe because he was telling me the microscope and the telescope, you know, be looking down and looking ahead. But he mentioned something really cool that you guys were looking at Sector Based Service teams. So how do we learn a little more about that and how that works? Do tell.


Mark: Really excited about this. We have this concept. We've started working on identifying how we would roll something like this out, and we actually applied for one of the Disability Innovation Fund grants and we got it this year. And so we have a five year grant. And so this allows us to not just take the concept we wanted to try out, but actually create a real research study and bring technical assistance and tools to bear on to see how this may impact really our. And our consumer success, the grant name is the Pathways to Success program, but it is that Sector Based strategy.


Carol: Are you doing it alone or are you in a collaborative with another state?


Mark: Oh, we're doing it on our own.


Carol:  Ok.


Mark: We figured we had ample consumers to work with in California.


Carol: Yeah, that's awesome.


Mark: And we started laying the foundation because we started working on the process. But having the ability to have this a set aside with a study and web have the university partner with San Diego State University and we have other partners as well. We got 15 letters of support across the state, including from our labor agency and our workforce partners, so we're really excited about that. The way I explain the sector based strategy is this typically a consumer is served by somebody from our program based on their proximity. So it's a consumer zip code that typically dictates who they're working with and sometimes through specialization. So you may have a counselor for the deaf, or you may have a counselor that works with supported employment caseload, but typically that's it. If I'm your consumer is because you're my zip code or because you're specializing in the school caseload. And so I remember working as a counselor and I had a transition aide, youth caseload of some migrant farm workers, justice involved individuals and those in support employment. So I had a variety of consumers in my zip code. So I was expected to be a disability expert. So, you know, went to school, you know, got that and learned that the consumer is the best expert in their disability. So, you know, so I didn't have to be an expert in every disability, but it was also my job to help the consumer prepare for employment, and I needed to then know about all these occupations.

So at one time, I think I had a butcher, a teacher, a janitor, a software technician, a security guard, dental hygienist and a bank teller. And I think maybe even a line cook. Those are all plans that I had. And so I was expected as a brand new counselor to figure out how a cook gets a job and how a teacher gets a job, or what does a dental hygienist have to go through to get a job? And what is the security guard need? And I did it every time we had to do research, and I was never, never became an expert in anything. I became a generalist but never became an expert. And so writing a really, really good IPE with someone really is a challenge. And so we said, what have we have rather than the proximity? Because that's not really that important, particularly not nowadays, because you can work with people remotely and that's part of our sector based program.


Carol: Absolutely.


Mark: So we said, OK, what if we look at what are the high wage, high demand sectors in California? There were employers are clamoring for employees and why don't we prepare them a workforce by understanding exactly what they need, developing relationship with the sector employers and then having everybody that is interested in those specific occupations work for that same counselor.

And so since we can use technology that can be located anywhere in the state because, for example, we have a health care specialist who's working with consumers across the state and helping guide them through how the Irvine Medical Center hires or how Kaiser Permanente hires. But actually doing it because they know somebody for Kaiser. They know somebody at Irvine Medical Center because they've told them this is how we hire. This is how if you want to get in the door, this is the credentialing or this is the training that you need. And here are some programs. So they become experts. So this pilot or this actually this grant now, so we have five specific sectors. One is health care, advanced manufacturing and green energy with information technology and communications and with biotechnology. Those are high demand, high wage sectors in California, and we have one specialist counselor that works with each of those sectors. We call our sector the business consultants that actually work with the employers and develop paid work experience. And we wrote in a component that almost everybody, if they don't have experience in the field already, they're actually all going to get paid work experience in their field. And the employers are willing and we set aside funds to do that because there's nothing better than try it before you buy it on both ends because we know how great our consumers are. We want our employers to find that out as well.


Carol: I love that. I love that. So that's only probably been going a few months now.


Mark: This summer, we put a framework together. We got the grant started October one. We're actually working on our contracts for some technical assistance because we want these jobs to be available to everybody, regardless of disability. So we're working with some specialists that are going to provide technical assistance and training to work with individuals on the spectrum and also individuals with intellectual disabilities. Because we believe skilled manufacturing is skill. I mean, that high wage here in California, we want to make sure that everybody has that opportunity. And it was really interesting. Even though it's been a few years, a few months, we're already seeing quite a few exciting things happen. They've really built up their reputation with the employer. So we're actually seeing some of the employers referring people to us to prepare them for that employer so they know somebody. And so one example is there's actually we actually got a consumer who wanted to go to medical school but didn't have the resources she was working. And so she going have the resources to go to medical school. She heard about us and actually, it's really fun because the question we're getting now is we understand that you're looking for people to work in health care or a nurse and not have a disability. I want to go to work. I hear you're preparing people for these types of jobs. And so when that consumer or that, well, now she's a consumer. But when she applied to us, she didn't really know about it, except. For we prepare people to get into the medical field. She has a significant disability, so clearly right in our wheelhouse, and we wanted to work with her, so we actually found her eligible virtually. They have never physically met. They met virtually through Zoom. The counselor worked with the consumer and actually wrote a plan for a doctor. And so she's actually a medical school now. She wrote a really nice note to her accounts. They're saying for the first time, she actually feels like she belongs somewhere.


Carol: Oh man.


Mark: I got chills because that's exactly what we want. We want people to feel like they belong.


Carol: And you're talking professions, too, that are not food, filth and flowers. You know, it's you're talking above that and really family sustaining wages careers. That's what VR is all about.


Mark: I can't think of a more fantastic role model if going to a physician with a significant disability and recognizing yourself in that physician because, well, I've been going to doctors for a long, long time and I've never really seen somebody who reflected the people that I work with. Absolutely. That's really cool. This cancer, her experience now she can work with anybody in the state, is interested in medical school, nursing a school or other careers in the health care sector. Because not only does she know about it, she also has the connections now. And one thing that's really cool about this when we talk about sector based, if you align all these consumers by their vocational goal in their sector, there's another thing you can do that's kind of fun. And for us, part of the project part of the grant is we're developing some electronic tools, and one of them is a web based online learning management system where the consumers that are, you know, let's say, health care consumers, they're all we've got twenty five individuals looking for nursing jobs and they're nursing. They can actually sign up, become a cohort and like a classroom, and the counselor can share information and job leads with them.

But they can also speak with each other and kind of create their own network because we know that's how people get jobs. They can voluntarily put in their own name and communicate to the degree that they want. They can share resources, they can share their experiences and hopefully they build their own network and we're going to allow them to continue to be on that forever. Even though a case is closed. If you're somebody who worked through that and you're a nurse, maybe you can be a mentor. Maybe you can be a reference, maybe you can be a resource, or maybe some day, maybe an employer, one of the consumers that is going through that process. So we're going to roll that out this year. We're going to try that as well as some other things, and we have five years to try this out. We're hoping that over the five years that we're going to serve these 13, at least 13 other individuals that we're going to see if this makes a difference and we really believe it will.


Carol: I know we'll see you at a CSAVR conference down the road talking about all of the outcomes from this very cool project. I do want to get to one other thing because I know you have like maybe 14 more, but I wanted to talk about how you are opening up your operations to serve customers seven days a week and you're looking at outside of kind of the normal eight to four or nine to five type of hours. Tell me a little bit about that.


Mark: Yeah, thank you. And now it's great because we're looking at some of our future initiatives and we've actually started having the conversations and looking into and putting together the proposal to roll this out. And really, this is just one of our continuing initiatives to improve our customers experience with us. And so since we have now through October, we had this force evolution where the world of work has changed and we have technology and we have a great percentage of our staff works at least part time from home. For us, there's no reason to believe that that concept won't allow us to do something else. And even though we are huge state and we've got hundreds of miles in each direction where consumers could live and interact with our staff, the ability to work virtually allows us then to cover the whole state for somebody that could be located in the middle of the state or in the north part of the state. And so currently we're serving participants predominantly between eight and five p.m. a Monday through Friday. Sometimes, you know, there's some wiggle room. We have some offices may start at seven or seven thirty, but typically it's between eight to five. But we know that people who are in school or they're working, that's probably at the same time as they're in school or working.

And so it's really hard to connect. And we also know that emergencies, they don't keep an eight to five schedule either. And so using technology and recognizing that people are able to work from home, they can text, they can use FaceTime and Zoom. We want to expand the availability. So we're putting out the option for our staff, for counselors and for our support staff to change their schedules, to work Saturday and take a weekday off so they can work Tuesday through Saturday, or they can work Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday. So for us to start with opening Saturday and having five or six or seven, depending on utilization, we'll figure out what the right number of staff are. And through our website and through what we're building our portal out and through our portal or through our website. Anybody who has a need or a question can actually connect with a counselor and actually get services on Saturdays as well. And so we're going to take a look at that Saturday in terms of getting the technology and the systems to work and see what the utilization is. Plan is, whether it's seven or seven thirty in the morning to seven o'clock in the evenings, and again our staff would be able to work from home.

The idea, again, is that if somebody needs something that they should be able to get a hold of somebody, an actual person next month. Actually, we're rolling out our consumer. Payment card is instead of having checks or other processes to get services to consumers, they'll actually going to have their debit card that we issue them. And the way we set it up is that upon ordering it, we can refill that card within 30 minutes of us requesting it from our vendor that if somebody needs books, supplies transportation or they're starting to work on Saturday and they need their work boots, or they need to get something for a work uniform that they can contact us, the counselor, like our counselor of the day, would during the regular week would be able to do the authorization, work with our office technician and then sponsor the card so they can get services on Saturday as well. And the goal for us really is and all these efforts is to both modernize and to improve our customers experience with us because we need to meet them where they are. And this is another one of examples of where we're trying to do that.


Carol: Well, I'm sure many of the things that you talked about today are going to pique some of our listeners interest. So I just wondering what is the best way for someone to get a hold of you if they just want to get a little bit more information about one or more of the things that you've mentioned today?


Mark: I'd be happy to connect with anybody. I mean, we started meeting with several other states, both we're taking information from them and we're sharing with them about some of our initiatives. If anybody else has any questions, probably the best way is, you know, just shoot me an email and I'll be happy to respond. And likely I will connect you with the experts in this because I'm talking like, I'm doing all this hard work is really my team and my team is phenomenal, and I connect with the experts and people are actually living this and be happy to participate as well. Anything I can do and any information I can provide or answer any questions. Really happy to do that. And we recognize that even though we're California, we're all one family. So across the country, we share resource information and we hope successes with all our other programs.


Carol: I've always appreciated that about California. You guys have always been really willing. I know I reached out many times in my time when I was Minnesota. I would reach out for different ideas and just to get more information. And I've appreciated that you guys have been super open and really responsive because I feel like when we lift each other up like it lifts up the whole country. So can you give us your email address?


Mark: Yeah. So it's mark m A r k period Erlichman e r l i c h man at D as in dog o r C A dot Gov.


Carol: Well, I appreciate that Mark. I really appreciate you spending time with me today. I know you're super busy, so thanks for being on the show. I'm definitely going to check back to see how some of these new initiatives are going down the road. You'll have more metrics and fun things to share, so I hope you have a great day.


Mark: Really appreciate it. Thank you. And have a good  day.


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