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Room for Working Poor In Welfare's New Deal?

By Jon Jeter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 15 1997; Page A01

Ada Thompson's entry into the labor force comes as something of a bargain for the hotel where she works – and a bit of a threat to her co-workers.

During her 90-day probation, Thompson will wipe, dust and vacuum on eight-hour shifts, five days a week, the same as any other housekeeper. In return, she will get $410 a month in welfare benefits from the state and a $30 weekly stipend from the Omni Inner Harbor Hotel.

After probation, the hotel's managers will decide whether to hire Thompson permanently for $6.10 an hour. But the company is not legally obligated to do that for her or any of the 13 temporary, taxpayer-subsidized housekeepers drawn from the city's public assistance rolls.

The city's efforts to move Thompson off the dole and into the workplace have pushed her smack-dab into the middle of a long and acrimonious labor dispute between Baltimore's largest hotel and its 300 bellmen, housekeepers, doormen and kitchen workers. And the question of whether management will hire Thompson has added more uncertainty to an uneasy coexistence.

These are indeed anxious times for the working poor in Maryland and across the nation, who see peril in the welfare-to-work movement that began in August with a swipe of President Clinton's pen.

Guided by the new federal mandate to drastically cut the welfare caseload, Baltimore social service workers have nudged the 13 jobless women into a tense and unsettled situation.

"The situation at the Omni should be a warning for all working people that welfare reform was never intended to lift poor people out of poverty," said the Rev. Douglas Miles, former co-chairman of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development. "It was intended to provide greater subsidies to corporations, and this brand of welfare repeal has merely shifted taxpayers' subsidies from the neediest to the greediest."

The proliferation of employment opportunities for welfare recipients is inevitable, say economists, social policy experts and advocates for the poor, as officials search for ways to shepherd nearly 2 million people off the dole and into jobs by 2002.

But the problem is that even in a surging economy, unskilled and low-skilled employment remains scarce, and one result is a game of musical chairs in which the working poor will be pitted against the dependent poor for a finite number of jobs, economists say.

"There is certainly going to be some displacement," said Rebecca Blank, an economics professor at Northwestern University. "The question is how much, and that's what we don't know because we've never done anything quite like this before."

Congress's overhaul of the nation's anti-poverty programs weakens federal safeguards against using welfare recipients in job-training programs to replace workers, in part by requiring displaced workers to prove that their employers intended to force them out.

That's a tough legal standard. But state and local officials point out that the overhaul still prohibits employers from putting trainees into existing jobs. Moreover, if officials suspected that a company were exploiting the job-training program for cheap labor, "we certainly wouldn't send them any more of our clients," said Sue Fitzsimmons, a spokeswoman for Baltimore's Department of Social Services.

Six weeks into the program, Fitzsimmons said, Omni executives have agreed to hire two of the 13 housekeeping trainees. Peter A. Bheda, the hotel's general manager, said the company's only interest in collaborating with the city is "helping people get a second chance in their lives. There is no profit for us with this program."

But Bheda would not discuss the year-long labor dispute between the Omni, Baltimore's largest hotel, and Local 7 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union. The Omni's union contract expired in September 1995 after the workers voted not to accept a new contract with wage concessions and a reduction in benefits, said Paul Richards, the local's executive secretary.

But the workers, acknowledging that they could not endure an extended walkout because of their low pay, decided not to strike and chose instead to picket the Omni intermittently and urge a public boycott.

At a news conference this week, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke (D) touted the city's new arrangement with the hotel and Baltimore's Goodwill Industries – which provides training and counseling – as an important tool in preparing jobless women for the unfamiliar world of work. That, in turn, will help the city comply with the stringent work requirements established when Clinton and Congress agreed to overhaul the nation's welfare programs.

"This is a good day in Baltimore for all of us," Schmoke said. "We hope that this is going to be an example not just for the hospitality industry but for many others as well."

Union workers have a different view. "They're bringing in cheap help. That's what they're doing," said Ella Mae Walker, 60, who is paid $7.25 an hour and has prepared salads in the hotel's kitchen for almost 24 years. "They're just trying to break up our union, is all."

The fissures inherent in the effort to remake welfare are beginning to appear across the country. In New York City, transit workers last year protested a plan by Republican Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's administration to use welfare recipients to clean subways and buses but eventually acceded in contract negotiations with the city.

Public employee unions in Wisconsin are pushing for measures to protect their jobs from Republican Gov. Tommy G. Thompson's far-reaching overhaul of the state's public relief system.

A job-training program in Alabama requires some welfare recipients to work for more than four months without pay for employers such as Continental Eagle, a cotton gin manufacturer near Montgomery.

And in Baltimore, officials at Patterson High School decided last year not to renew the contract with the janitorial company that cleaned the building and are now looking for welfare recipients to do the work, in part because "their rates would be cheaper for me," said Joseph Nollie, the building's custodian.

Last year, the National Labor Relations Board filed a complaint alleging that the hotel enlisted employees to sign petitions to abolish the union, then refused to recognize Local 7 as a bargaining unit. An administrative law judge is scheduled to decide the matter next month, but at the news conference this week, Omni executives would not answer questions about the labor dispute or whether anyone hired from the city's welfare rolls would be allowed to join the union.

"We don't have a union for them to join," said Daphne Webb, a hotel spokeswoman. "There is no union here as far as we're concerned."

At the hotel news conference, Thompson, a 34-year-old mother of four, and a few of her fellow working welfare mothers posed for pictures with Schmoke. Afterward, Thompson surveyed the room as the crowd dwindled, then lowered her voice to talk to a reporter.

"This program, it's all right," she said in a voice slightly above a whisper. "But they work you like a dog for $30."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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