Eoghan Brunkard says the organisation where he works has always relied heavily on helpers who were on community-employment schemes.
But towards the end of 2015, he and others there began to notice that the stream of helpers had begun to taper off.
“Things had started to dry up,” said Brunkard, who works for the Fountain Resource Group on James’s Street.
He and others in the neighbourhood say they worry about the knock-on effect this might have on local services.
Community-employment schemes have been in place since 1994.
They’re aimed at helping the long-term unemployed get back to work, by offering part-time and temporary placements in jobs based within local communities. Those who take part get €22.50 per week on top of their social welfare.
Brunkard says he and his colleagues tried to work out what was going on once they noticed that they seemed to be getting fewer CE candidates. “We consulted with other groups and they too were saying they were getting no referrals.”
He and others think the reason is JobPath, which was brought in in 2015 to tackle long-term unemployment.
JobPath also focuses on long-term unemployed people on the live register, and is run day-to-day by two private-sector companies, Turas Nua and Seetec.
The Department of Social Protection randomly selects and refers a sample of long-term unemployed people for the programme, according to Minister Leo Varadkar, speaking in the Dáil.
As Brunkard sees it, community-employment schemes have traditionally done what these private companies do now: find employment for the long-term unemployed.
CE schemes can provide formal training and support for re-entering the labour market, says Brunkard.
The CE scheme system is better-equipped and experienced to deal with long-term unemployed, who might be vulnerable, than private companies, he argues.
They also help to support youth projects, childcare services and charity shops by providing them with workers at no cost.
Brunkard offers the Energy Action project on Newmarket Square, which works to make homes more energy efficient, as an example of an initiative that benefits from the CE scheme.
In July 2016, then Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar announced that 60,000 people would be referred to JobPath by the year’s end.
But as more people enter JobPath, it is unclear what this means for the future of CE schemes.
Once a participant is signed up to JobPath, they cannot participate in a CE scheme for up to a year. “Once they’re in there, they’re on their books,” says Brunkard.
Local organisations are no longer getting as many referrals from CE schemes from the Department of Social Protection. “I don’t think everyone realises what a pressure JobPath is on their services,” says Brunkard.
The Department of Social Protection Press Office did not respond to queries about the one-year requirement, and whether there were any plans to re-examine it.
Brunkard is not the only one to say that their organisation is struggling to find people to work through CE schemes.
“We’re losing three people next week and we’ve no replacement for them. It’s very hard to get CE workers now, very hard,” said Jackie Dutton, the manager of Wee Tots Creche and Playschool on Upper Basin Street.
She is concerned about what this will mean for local childcare provision. “Of course, the parents are worried and concerned because they know they can’t do it themselves,” she says.
Elsewhere in Dublin 8, John Shaw provides an after-school service for children from the Oliver Bond Street flats.
He was a beneficiary of a CE scheme himself, he says. After his rehabilitation for heroin addiction, he did a BA in anthropology, but had little luck finding work.
So he went to the social-welfare office and applied for a CE scheme. I “explained my situation, my background, my story, threw it all on the table and they said, ‘Welcome aboard'”, says Shaw.
It’s a supportive environment, he says. “That’s been the ethos that I’ve worked with.”
Shaw was eventually taken on full-time at the after-school service and estimates that 18 participants have passed through the service over the past three years on CE schemes.
As he sees it, JobPath is “poaching” those who would be eligible to take part in CE schemes and aid local, community services. “This whole idea of privatising the employment services is just a complete nightmare,” he says.
Shaw says that he understands that the incentives for the long-term unemployed to enroll in CE schemes could be greater, if they got paid more.
Brunkard has now started the Campaign for CE Reform – to push for tweaks to the system that would lessen what he sees as the drain on community organisations.
He wants to see the rules changed so that people can take up full-time employment through JobPath if they are offered it, but also to ensure that local community organisations don’t lose out.
That would mean a simple change in policy allowing people to enter into CE schemes at any stage of the JobPath process, he says.
“That could give people a choice, to gain the experience and proper training they need to compete in the labour market,” he says.
It’s unclear what the success rate of JobPath has been as there hasn’t been a proper evaluation yet, says Mary Murphy, a senior lecturer at Maynooth University and a labour market researcher.
(There has been one performance report from the department, which is positive, but it notes that the data should be treated with caution.)
When there is an analysis, it will be interesting to see if there is more progression into jobs through JobPath than through state services, she says. She thinks there might be.
There are concerns about how training paths on CE schemes, which last up to three years, are not necessarily a quick measure to finding long-term employment, says Murphy.
Not everybody on CE schemes finds them a helpful path to employment, either.
According to a survey carried out by the publication rabble, one person said they were “exploitative nonsense”. Another questioned whether they depressed wages.
Still, the disappearance of CE helpers can leave local community organisations that rely on them in a tight spot.
They have a right to vent their frustration, says Murphy. “From their perspective they’re providing local services that are needed,” she says.
There were supposed to be two streams for CE schemes, according to Murphy.
Some people were supposed to go into the labour-market stream, and others into the social stream. The latter would provide continued support for local services, like Shaw’s.
“The social was a recognition that CE is actually providing a lot of services,” she said.
In the coming months, there is likely going to be a review of the CE scheme, says Murphy.
“The solution from the government’s perspective was that they would recognise the CE schemes that were delivering core social services and they would make them less geared towards the labour market so there would be a different cohort of people going on them,” she says.
One change, made recently, was to lower the age limit of those eligible for CE schemes from 25 to 21.
There are other questions around whether the provision of community services should be set up in the way that they are. “The other answer is that these are essential social services and that it’s not that logical that they should be funded through labour-market services,” says Murphy.
Brunkard of the Fountain Resource Group says that he plans to extend the Reform campaign into the Northside of Dublin over the coming months, and to appear before the Committee on Social Protection.
“From a policy-change point of view, this doesn’t have to be radical,” he says. “Everyone can be pragmatic. It’s about the prioritisation of the services.”
As Shaw sees it, CE schemes are paramount to the community in Dublin 8.
“I can see CE schemes dying. I can see after-school support schemes dying,” he says. “They’re not taking in consideration that I take in 25 kids here for four, four and a half hours.”
“It is the most stable part of their day,” he says. “They’re fed twice. I make sure they get their homework done. They’ve a stable, happy environment.”