Roughly 75 percent of all staff members in federal Head Start programs collect unemployment compensation during off-season summer months, according to a government report. Many administrators of the Head Start program, which teaches basic skills to disadvantaged preschool children, view the practice as a legitimate means of supplementing low staff salaries.
But the rising cost of unemployment insurance, which must be paid from Head Start program funds, is now threatening to erode the quality of services extended to disadvantaged children.
``Continued routine use of summer unemployment compensation will cripple Head Start programs,'' according to a report issued by Health and Human Services Inspector General Richard P. Kusserow.
Although his report was issued last February, government officials have not yet made a decision on how to respond to financial problems arising from increasing unemployment-insurance rates.
Instead, Head Start officials in Washington have recently sent a summary of the report's findings to the administrators of the 1,200 local Head Start programs across the country. Local administrators are being asked to examine current and future program costs and to develop long-range plans providing adequate salaries for staff members, without resorting to the use of unemployment compensation as a summertime ``fringe benefit.''
Most of the nation's Head Start programs operate 9 or 10 months a year, paralleling the school year. While federal regulations specifically forbid schoolteachers to claim unemployment compensation during the summer, most Head Start staff workers legally qualify for such compensation provided they are actively looking for work.
``Under no circumstance do we want unemployment compensation to be considered a fringe benefit for Head Start employees,'' says Robert Foster, director of Head Start's program operations division.
The problem Head Start officials are grappling with is how to boost Head Start salaries to levels that will ensure retention of a quality staff without unduly draining federal grant funds meant to help disadvantaged children.
If summer unemployment compensation is eliminated, some Head Start workers will be living at or near the poverty line, according to Head Start officials.
``A lot of them are breadwinners and need to have that income,'' says Susie Moore, director of local Head Start programs in Howard County, Md.
``When you cut a person back and they live in the Washington area you are sending them to the welfare role. They become part of the working poor,'' says Richard Patterson, Head Start grant director for local programs in the District of Columbia. Staff salaries in Washington average more than $1,000 a month, according to Patterson.
The inspector general's report estimates that the average Head Start recipient of unemployment compensation receives a total of $1,200 for the entire summer.
Nationally, the Head Start program serves 450,000 disadvantaged preschool children each year with a total budget of just over $1 billion.
In recent years the amount Head Start pays for unemployment insurance has risen from $9.8 million in 1983 to $15.6 million this year. Most of the increase has resulted from a vicious cycle in which unemployment-insurance rates were driven up by the higher rate of ``unemployment'' recorded among Head Start staff members.
Options under consideration by Head Start officials include extending the contract term for staff members to a full year, similar to schoolteachers; increasing the nine-month salary for staff workers to the equivalent of a full year salary; and changing federal regulations to forbid Head Start workers from collecting unemployment compensation when they have an expectation of continued employment with Head Start in the fall.
The denial of summer unemployment compensation in 1985 would have saved the federal government $21.6 million, according to the inspector general.
But Head Start workers say it might also have cost the Head Start program a number of experienced staff members, who might have found it necessary to resign to find better paying jobs.
``We certainly don't want to hurt our present staff in any way,'' says Mr. Foster.
He adds, ``There will be a policy out on this as soon as possible.''