Governor Wolf Recognizes L&I Employees for Opioid Epidemic Workforce Initiative and Creating Clear Face Masks for Pennsylvanians who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing

April 28, 2021

Governor Tom Wolf is honoring two Department of Labor & Industry (L&I) employees with separate Governor’s Awards for Excellence for their efforts to assist workers affected by the opioid epidemic and assist communication during the pandemic for individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Tara Smolock, a Workforce Development Analyst, earned her award for initiating a grant providing businesses with resources to support employees impacted by the opioid and heroin epidemic. Linda Wentz, of the Pennsylvania Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR), was recognized for creating 500 clear face masks that allowed individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing to read lips and expressions during the COVID-19 pandemic. They are among 51 employees from 10 agencies who will be recognized at a virtual ceremony May 5 for extraordinary accomplishments in 2020.

“This year’s L&I Governor’s Awards for Excellence recipients offer two great examples of employees whose commitment and innovation have led to a better quality of life for Pennsylvanians,” said Gov. Wolf.  “Tara’s innovative approach to assisting employers with onboarding and maintaining employees in recovery is a win-win for businesses and job seekers. Linda’s efforts to ensure staff and clients had face masks during the pandemic that allowed them to effectively communicate with others is a wonderful example of taking initiative to effect positive change.”

Assisting Workers Affected by Substance Use Disorder

Smolock received the award for work she completed remotely during the pandemic as project manager of the National Health Emergency (NHE) Dislocated Worker Demonstration Grant. The grant, in partnership with Penn State College of Medicine on Project ECHO (Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes) Supporting Employers, Supporting Employees in Recovery (SESER), launched a no-cost educational series for employers of individuals with a substance use disorder.

Recognizing substance use disorder as a significant public health crisis facing Pennsylvania, Gov. Wolf signed a disaster declaration in January 2018 that allows the state to loosen regulations and work outside of typical procedures to expedite aid and initiatives to help those suffering from opioid use disorder and those who work to prevent and treat this medical condition.

Smolock’s project, the NHE Dislocated Worker Demonstration Grant, provides employers in some of Pennsylvania’s hardest-hit areas with resources and strategies to support employees in recovery. By initiating a partnership with ECHO SESER, Smolock transformed a method of delivering information to integrate treatment and employment services, expand related medical and treatment services and educate and engage employers to promote recovery-friendly workplaces that promote diversity, inclusiveness and fairness across the commonwealth.

Helping Deaf Community Members Communicate During the Pandemic

Wentz, a dormitory counselor at OVR’s Hiram G. Andrews Center (HGAC) in Johnstown, Cambria County, understands the need for individuals who use American Sign Language, or other non-verbal communication methods, to see a speaker’s mouth for lip-reading. She spent many hours designing, testing and eventually sewing 500 clear masks for OVR’s staff and customers across the commonwealth to facilitate safe and effective communication with individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing during the pandemic.

Additionally, when classes at HGAC were transitioned to remote learning to protect the health and safety of students and staff, despite the potential risk of being exposed to COVID-19, Wentz volunteered to help students retrieve critical personal items that were needed at home.

“The efforts of these award recipients go far and above L&I’s day to day support of Pennsylvanians,” said Department of Labor & Industry Acting Secretary Jennifer Berrier. “Our agency is committed to making sure, in every way possible, that we promote the economic development of our commonwealth and improve its business climate, which includes supporting businesses and jobseekers during challenging times.”

The Governor’s Awards for Excellence recognize employees for exemplary job performance or service that reflects initiative, leadership, innovation and increased efficiency. Employees or a group of employees are nominated by a co-worker for the award. For more information on the awards, visit www.oa.pa.gov/gae.

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