WASHINGTON–Ten years ago, Coniece Washington was walking through the Washington, DC, VA Medical Center when she saw a job notice tacked to a board: certified rehabilitation counselor. It was the job she’d been doing at her previous employer for 17 years. The notice said the job opening was closing that day.
“I walked into HR and asked if he’d accept a handwritten resume, so I could officially make the deadline. Then I could send a formal one the next day,” Washington explained. The HR director was skeptical, but Washington sat down and spent the next 45 minutes handwriting her resume–a document that, in addition to those 17 years of work experience, included nearly a decade in the Army, a master’s degree in human resources and national certification as a rehabilitation counselor. She got the job, and 10 years later she’s the hospital’s compensated work therapy coordinator.
That Washington’s job application was a little untraditional is only appropriate, considering the role she plays. The CWT program provides counseling for disabled veterans who might otherwise have difficulty finding and maintaining employment in their community. These veterans might have substance abuse issues, mental health problems such as PTSD and frequently are struggling with homelessness. And those disabilities might not be service-connected, so they might not have access to employment programs in the Veterans Benefits Administration. CWT staff partner closely with these veterans’ mental health providers to help them prepare to enter the workforce, then work with employers to get them placed in transitional jobs.
“In a typical day, I’ll see several CWT patients and meet with members of their treatment team. I’ll meet with veterans who want to interview with me for admittance into the program. I’ll advise my staff of vocational rehabilitation specialists who might have questions as to the best way to counsel a veteran. And I’ll be meeting with employers to persuade them to participate in our CWT transitional work program.”
For participating employers, CWT essentially works like a temp agency, with the program placing veterans in jobs and the employers paying VA for the service. VA will then use that money to pay the veteran and provide transportation assistance in the form of Metro cards. In the DC area, the two biggest CWT employers are the Smithsonian Institution and the DCVAMC itself.
“They’re not an employee of that employer. Even when they’re in the transitional work program, they’re a patient,” Washington said. “And many times this leads to [post-CWT program] work with the Smithsonian or the hospital for that veteran. I tell my vets when they receive their CWT assignment: ‘Treat this as an interview.’”
A disabled veteran herself, Washington knows how difficult it can be to find work after leaving the military. “When I came out of the military, I had a hard time finding a job. Because of my master’s degree, I kept hearing I was overqualified and that I wasn’t going to stay. I started getting depressed. I had to work two part-time jobs, and I was able to stay with a friend,” Washington said. “For people who might be suffering from PTSD, who might have clinical depression or just might not know where to turn, they can get really depressed. They need to have a job.”
CWT is an evidence-based program, and studies have shown that veterans who have steady employment are more stable themselves. “Especially those with substance abuse–if they don’t have a job, they might be hanging around with the wrong people,” Washington noted.
There are about 100 veterans in the program at any one time, though the demand for CWT jobs outstrips the supply. “If I’m walking down a hall in the hospital, I’ll hear, ‘Miss Washington, how do I get in the CWT? Miss Washington, how do I find a job?’” she said. “I’m known as Miss Washington, the lady who can help them find a job. That’s me on a typical day–I’m a veteran helping veterans.”
Washington is set to retire from VA this year to spend more time in her other life as a professional jazz vocalist. She’s already given her staff their marching orders. First on the list is to find more employers willing to partner with CWT. The program has just hired a new vocational rehabilitation specialist to focus on southern Maryland, where veterans have to drive an hour and a half to get to the DCVAMC.
“He’ll be knocking on the doors of a lot of employers down there,” she said. “He’s a former Army warrant officer. Very assertive. I think the future of the program looks bright.”