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New York's Workfare Picks Up City and Lifts Mayor's Image

By Judith Havemann
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 13 1997; Page A01

If you want to see an industrial-strength version of welfare's future, walk along the egg wholesale and textile warehouses on the waterfront in Brooklyn and watch Ellamae Harden trudge toward the finish line of her workfare shift.

Wearing her regulation Day-Glo orange vest, Harden sweeps methodically toward Sanitation Garage No. 7, bracing her trash cart against the downhill slope as she whisks up a crumpled wrapper and soft drink cup.

Harden's hair is listing forward and sweat beads her upper lip as she shakes final bits of rubbish into the waiting garbage truck and makes for the supervisor's office to get a $38 credit toward her welfare check.

"The minute I get home, these shoes come off, I get in the shower and hit the bed," she says.

Harden, 42, is a draftee in New York City's war against dependency, one of 38,000 welfare recipients required to work off their monthly checks by sweeping streets, cleaning parks and doing other municipal chores. Beneficiaries with children are required to work 20 hours a week, and New York's special state "home relief" recipients – jobless men and women who have no dependent children – are required to work off their cash grant, housing allowance and food stamps at the minimum wage.

And ever since Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani expanded the minuscule program known as workfare into a monumental work force the size of Nordstrom's, the city has been getting cleaner, the mayor more popular, and the typical resident more satisfied with city services.

Welfare recipients, meanwhile, are learning the value of showing up on time, following directions and working cooperatively – all skills the city maintains will help these workers land permanent jobs in the private sector.

"If the government is going to provide a benefit," said Anthony Coles, a senior adviser to Giuliani, "it has the right and the obligation to ask for something in return."

But the growth of workfare has also triggered a slow escalation of protests about whether the program is in the best interest of the welfare recipients it is targeted to help. If welfare recipients are doing work for the city, some critics ask, shouldn't they be able to work their way onto the city payroll and receive employee benefits and protections like any other municipal worker?

Some skeptics also question whether the city might be better off requiring recipients to get education and training that could help them gain better jobs with salaries capable of supporting their families when their benefits run out in five years.

"Most Americans would say it is reasonable to have a goal of reciprocal obligation," of doing something in return for taxpayers' money, said David Butler, assistant director of operations for the Manpower Demonstration Research Corp. and a former New York City welfare official. "The question is, is the quid pro quo a fair one? Does the work experience help people become self-sufficient? What we know of these programs from the 1980s is that they have not done so in the past."

All across America, states are energetically implementing the new federal welfare law requiring 50 percent of all welfare recipients to be working by 2002. Almost every governor and many mayors are cobbling together their own work programs to employ recipients who cannot find jobs in the private sector. So far, most places have chosen a kinder, gentler route than New York, such as placing mothers in food pantries sorting canned goods. But New York's workfare model, the largest and most comprehensive in the nation, provides an almost irresistible beacon for states to follow as work requirements become more stringent.

Here, Giuliani has made welfare reform a centerpiece of his administration, and his Work Experience Program (WEP) the centerpiece of welfare reform.

The welfare system he is trying to reform is a little like the city's cab fleet: It's huge, hustling and hard to regulate. One in eight of the city's 7,333,253 residents is on welfare. Its human relations bureaucrats process 800,000 cases each month. The cost of its program is more than $2 billion annually. So rampant was fraud, according to the city, that 37,000 people either were caught cheating or failed to show up when Giuliani began requiring recipients to be fingerprinted as a means of weeding out cheaters. After the city began seriously tightening eligibility and requiring welfare parents to go to work, more than 280,000 dropped off the rolls.

For an industrial-strength problem, Giuliani has adopted a heavy-duty solution. It's not as demanding as some states – Wisconsin will soon require virtually every recipient to work 40 hours a week, for example. But the city's workfare program is an extraordinary thing to behold, a test of the mayor's conviction that the best training for a job is a job.

And so nearly every morning, WEP workers fan out into the city's bleakest neighborhoods like bright orange symbols of Giuliani's commitment to the work ethic. At 8 a.m., Sunset Park is nearly empty, the vast swimming pool unused, the baby wading pool broken and drained. A man who was a computer technician in Russia before immigrating to the United States is hard at work stabbing bits of trash with a sharp pole and sliding it off into his garbage bag.

Tugging on the orange vest he wears on WEP duty, the man, 50, asked that his name not be published because he thinks it will stigmatize him in the job market. Unlike many of the 113,000 immigrants who come to New York every year, he is holding out for a job worthy of his skills and thinks he might get one soon on Wall Street or teaching college.

He has been in the country for four years, receiving New York's version of welfare for single adults while improving his English and looking for work. He is correct in suggesting that he would contribute more to the city economy if he could land a $50,000 job than if he accepts anything at the minimum wage. But this argument doesn't go far in a city whose economy has been ignited by the low-wage labor of millions of overqualified immigrants. Many city residents might also question whether a man who hasn't gotten a job after four years will ever get one if he isn't prodded to do so.

The immigrant says he is agreeable to doing work, just not the kind the city has in mind. "I think people who have benefits have to do something useful. I agree with this. But they could use me more efficiently than people who do garbage," he said.

Others have similar complaints.

Some parents say they have been forced to quit college to perform their workfare assignments because they are simply unable to raise children alone, work and study at the same time. Najah Ouahbi, who until being given a workfare job was a computer science student at New York City Technical College in Brooklyn, said she was told she has to quit or finish college at night while working if she is to hold on to her welfare grant.

"The first day I was so scared. My children, they would die if they saw me on sanitation. I am thinking about killing myself, leaving them all to foster care," Ouahbi said.

The city maintains that it makes reasonable accommodations for welfare recipients who want to finish college, and they note that thousands of New Yorkers successfully juggle education and work. Furthermore, welfare officials say, since women with children are required to work no more than 20 hours a week, that leaves plenty of time for other things.

"What we don't do is excuse people from participation in the program," said Coles in the mayor's office.

Coles and other city officials say that many workfare participants relish their jobs, appreciate the chance to give something back to the city in return for their benefits, and like the camaraderie of being outside of the home and part of a group. Maria Perez, toiling in a mixed brigade of unionized municipal employees and WEP workers one recent morning, finds it irrelevant whether she is a city "employee" or not. Her view of her job is simple: She likes it, she says softly in Spanish, not stopping to look up. But her status is surprisingly important to a lot of people, not only in New York but in Washington.

In the recent balanced budget negotiations, President Clinton fought hard to make workfare participants like Perez official "employees" so that they would be entitled to an array of labor law protections. It was equally important to the Republican congressional leaders, who battled against the designation fiercely, saying it could cripple programs like Giuliani's, making regulations so onerous no state would bother to try.

Right now, Perez is not an official employee. She is "paid" $4.75 an hour in welfare benefits, with none of the perks – or tax burdens – of her unionized colleagues. She doesn't get sick leave or vacations, she doesn't have to pay Social Security or Medicare taxes, and she doesn't have automatic access to the federal labor, civil rights, disability and sexual harassment protections of other workers.

The balanced budget law has left the issue murky, though it may be taken up again in separate legislation this fall. In the meantime, New York is besieged with class action suits that suggest that much of what Perez gets, or doesn't get, may well be decided by the courts. Although two competing unions are trying to organize the workers, and often canvass the streets trying to get them to sign union cards, the city maintains that New York law prohibits workfare employees from collective bargaining.

Many WEP workers dismiss the notion that the city might hire them as wishful thinking, defying simple municipal mathematics. Workfare employees cost the city less than $2 an hour for supervision and equipment – not including the welfare benefits the city has been paying all along – while "real" employees cost the city at least $12 plus benefits, according to union research.

As for the view from Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, workfare participants have become a welcome sight on the most obscure streets. Residents watching them sweep their way past the tiny apartments applaud Giuliani for his tough stand on welfare.

"I think workfare is a good idea," said Jose Melendez as he played cards on the front stoop of his house on 62nd Street. "Third Avenue was pretty dirty before they came along. They don't deserve any extra pay. Why should they be paid extra when they are already getting all this money for free?"

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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