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From typist to supervisor, retiree knows welfare office

The former welfare office isn't what it used to be. It's better.

Just ask Janet Huebner, who retired last week as supervisor of Pierce County's Job Center and the office now known as economic support. With almost 44 years of employment there, Huebner is believed to be the senior-most economic support specialist in the state, said her boss, Director Reggie Bicha of the county's human services department.

Making the transition to retirement shouldn't be difficult for the Rock Elm native, as she's used to change.

"The programs here are in a constant state of change," she said Thursday.

Although some of that has meant more work, a lot of it has improved the agency's services, she said. For example, when it was found many of the women interested in AFDC had been left by their husbands, the need for a child support unit was realized, and the state established it. Carol Helmer was the first child support specialist, the retiree remembered.

Before the Job Center existed, a jobs program was developed locally, Huebner said. Two jobs representatives were employed as early as 1988 in work-related pursuits. And in 1969, a separation between aid and services in the office led to the arrival of the first case aide, Shirley Bostrom. Later, Huebner herself became the first permanent case aide, responsible for determining eligibility of clients.

A notable change affecting several programs regards verification, she said. When BadgerCare was begun in 1999, officials were told they didn't have to verify information from them.

"Whatever people told us, we were to believe," she said.

Today, input from program participants must be checked, the retiree said. More significantly, citizenship and identities must be confirmed for all Medicare clientele.

Huebner's own career changes have taken her from clerical work to supervisor of the office. She said she'd just graduated from Elmwood High School when her sister, Joyce Kendall, was employed by the welfare department in 1963. Kendall soon left to have a baby and never returned, deciding to go back to school instead.

More school was an option Huebner said she'd also considered, but chose to pursue the vacancy created by her sister's departure, and was hired.

"I remember taking my civil service test at the old junior high school," she said, indicating her first position was typist and she used a manual typewriter.

In those days, the office's six social workers handled welfare, AFDC, old age assistance and medical cases, she said. They did their own case narratives, making home visits, then dictating to the clerical staff, who typed all of their notes. No copy machines were available, so staffers relied on carbon paper. She worked in administration with Esther Hanson and Joyce Olson.

Over her years there, heads of a department known at various times as welfare, social services and human services included Earl Lundmark, Dale Melstrom, Ted Phernetton and, for the last half-decade, Reggie Bicha. The office was first housed on the lower level of the courthouse, where the district attorney's area is now.

"That was before the annex was built," she said. "We could see the old jail right outside our window."

Eventually, they occupied part of the lower annex, presently used by the sheriff's department, she said. They then moved to behind the annex's civil defense room (the ceiling sometimes leaked and the staff wondered where the water came from). The county office building was their next location after it opened in 1990 and, finally, they relocated to the current M&I Bank in Ellsworth in 1995, when the Job Center concept came to the state.

Huebner said her job evolved during her tenure in the department. When she advanced from clerical employee to case aide, she got to interview people, an aspect she enjoyed. The position she once held was later renamed income maintenance worker and, ultimately, economic support specialist. She was promoted to lead worker prior to being made supervisor.

A major undertaking for Pierce County, along with Fond du Lac County, was piloting the state's former Work Not Welfare (WNW) program, she said. WNW went statewide and became Wisconsin Works (W2), which was established here six months before the rest of the state. A private agency has since taken over the program in Pierce, now headquartered in River Falls.

"There are many good things about it, besides the emphasis on work," she said of W2.

Huebner's looking forward to retirement, as it will give her more time for the things she likes to do, she said. They include fishing, helping teach at Living Waters Fellowship in Ellsworth, attending her grandchildren's sporting events and being with family. She and husband Jerry have a son, Jason, in Chippewa Falls and a daughter, Gina, in Arcadia, along with five grandchildren.