Good Works… Without Pay

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Thousands of New Yorkers on public assistance are about to get acquainted with the nonprofit world–not as volunteers or employees, but through the city’s Work Experience Program (WEP), better known as workfare.

The prospect poses an ethical dilemma for many nonprofits by putting them in the position of having to report absences–which could lead directly to recipients being kicked off the welfare rolls and losing their means of support. Since 1995, the city has cut its welfare roles by more than a quarter million people, in large part by implementing strict workfare requirements.

But it also poses a bucket-load of practical problems for community groups. The city is preparing to have 100,000 or more public assistance recipients performing work-related activities–though not necessarily wage-earning work–by the middle of next year, about 10,000 of them at nonprofits. The reason: city agencies are reaching their capacity to absorb the thousands of public assistance recipients already working as clerks, trash collectors, demolition crews and street sweepers. And the nonprofit community, with more than $3 billion annually in city contracts, has so far absorbed a little less than 3,000 WEP participants.

But if city agencies have had a hard time assimilating workfare workers, the challenges of integrating them into the nonprofit world are much tougher. “Unless you’re really prepared, all of a sudden being given many [people in WEP] can be very disruptive,” says Peter Swords of the Non-Profit Coordinating Committee, a trade group of the city’s smaller nonprofits. “It takes time to work out what to do with them.”

“They have talked about the possibility of our groups becoming WEP sites” so that workers could more easily attend education and training sessions after work, says Jessica Peaslee of the New York City Family Literacy Collaborative. “But how many WEP workers can a small organization accommodate? It doesn’t address the need.” In addition, nonprofits have a host of unanswered questions about the applicability of labor law, worker safety guidelines and employee benefits.

For the welfare bureaucracy, however, expansion of WEP is a top priority. New placements are a much-valued asset–and although officials deny it, some observers fear the city may soon force nonprofit contractors to take WEP workers under their wings.

“Some groups feel they are being told that future funding is dependent on their willingness to go along with workfare,” says Liz Krueger, associate director of the Community Food Resource Center and a leading welfare watchdog. “Workfare will play a major role in how the city will be prioritizing contracts.”

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Using nonprofits for workfare offers the city a number of advantages, but it is most valuable as a cost-cutter. Farming out WEP workers is much cheaper than placing them in city offices.

Government agencies budget from $800 to $2,250 or more per WEP worker for supervision, supplies and other expenses. Moreover, some city staffers spend the majority of their work day managing WEP workers. By comparison nonprofits is a bargain: the city doesn’t reimburse them for any expenses. And most receive no extra funding for supervision, supplies or training. In return, they get is free labor.

The use of welfare recipients at nonprofits has increased dramatically since 1995. Six human service agencies oversee the program in different parts of the city, under contracts with the Human Resources Administration (HRA): the Washington Heights/Inwood Coalition covers Manhattan and the Bronx; Builders for Families and Youth represents Queens; and Black Veterans for Social Justice, the Italian-American Civil Rights League, the Jewish Community Center of Greater Coney Island and the Church Avenue Merchants and Block Association all cover Brooklyn. The city refers hundreds of WEP workers to these groups each month, and they in turn “outsource” them to other nonprofits.

The Washington Heights/Inwood Coalition, for example, that receives $100,000 annually to make sure that between 300 and 400 WEP participants are assigned and attending work sites at any given time. The savings to the city are tremendous, with a cost of only about $23 per WEP recipient per month.

“I would like to deal with 600 at a time, but I would need a bigger staff,” says Willie Colmans, WEP coordinator for the coalition, adding that he currently places WEP workers with 150 different nonprofits. Most of these public assistance recipients perform clerical duties, he says, while others do maintenance or community service work. Colmans expects to receive more WEP workers in the months ahead, but he says he has not gotten details yet.

WEP participants themselves staff the workfare referral program at Colmans’ organization–but real job referrals are much harder to come by. “I wouldn’t want to be in the Parks Department, because I want to practice my office skills,” says Joan Williams (not her real name). She wants to work full-time for Washington Heights/Inwood, but the group is not hiring. She faxes resumes daily, Williams says, but has been unable to find work.

“For me, WEP is a great stepping stone,” adds Danielle Milazzo, a single mother who attends LaGuardia College. She is in a program where she gets child care for her son and car fare to go to school. But making the transition from welfare to work, she admits, has proven elusive for most people in WEP–whether they’re working in city or nonprofit agencies.

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In addition to saving money, the nonprofits give Mayor Giuliani’s program a more humane face. “There’s been a lot of bad publicity about workfare, stories about people cleaning parks in freezing weather,” says Benjamin Dulchin, an organizer with Brooklyn’s Fifth Avenue Committee and part of WEP Workers Together!, an umbrella group organizing workfare participants citywide. “The nonprofit sector is seen as the softer sector. It carries a great amount of moral legitimacy.”

The group has convinced several dozen nonprofit and church leaders to sign a “Pledge of Resistance” stating they will not take on WEP workers. Sixty-eight had signed on as of late July. “It’s up to us, as nonprofits, to set the moral basis for welfare reform,” says Heidi Dorow of the Urban Justice Center. “And we can’t if we’re backpedaling by participating in the workfare program as it is right now.”

There are plenty of nonprofits that will take WEPs willingly, maintains HRA spokeswoman Renelda Higgins. “That is not a problem for us,” she says.

But there are problems for nonprofits who agree to participate. Foremost among them: how to find meaningful tasks for WEP workers while setting them on a road to employment.

The Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB), a Bronx-based group that offers services for seniors, youth and the homeless, has worked with WEP participants for several years at its three senior centers. “When I talk to WEP workers, they find the experience positive,” says Executive Director Carolyn McLaughlin. “The problem is whether it’s a career path.”

She adds: “One of the women here in the office, we only have limited resources to work with her. You would like to be able to do more and work with her on her skills, not just have her answer the phone.”

The organization seeks to hire from the population it serves, and many employees at its shelters and senior centers were once homeless or on welfare. Indeed, much of the staff at CAB’s Morris senior center first came to the organization through the WEP program. But McLaughlin says she is unhappy the city does not allow WEPs to spend work hours in computer skills training, English as a second language or other education programs.

“I’m certainly in agreement that WEP is not the answer,” McLaughlin says.

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City Hall has ignored such criticism and explicitly ruled out education and training as legitimate workfare activities. And exactly how the state’s bewildering workfare rules will be re-written remains uncertain, given Albany’s current inability to forge a bipartisan welfare reform compromise. For these reasons, the directors of nonprofit programs that have long served people on welfare–teaching English, reading and job skills–are uncertain what to do next.

Under WEP, the city will require most able-bodied mothers with children over three (and possibly younger) to take work assignments. These parents will still be able to go to school after work or on days when they are not on WEP assignment–but the classes won’t count toward work requirements as they have in the past. In June, the Human Resources Administration tentatively agreed to pay car fare and some child care expenses for WEP workers who want to take literacy and other classes. But the government’s incentives for welfare recipients to get an education will have been lost.

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Perhaps most disturbing to nonprofit directors are the legal implications of workfare–which remain totally undefined. “We’re advising clients to treat WEP people as employees,” says Allen Bromberger of the Lawyers Alliance. This means making sure they are covered by workers’ compensation, state unemployment insurance and disability. It also entails offering them any benefits they would otherwise qualify for and protecting them under worker safety and sexual harassment guidelines. For now, he says, no one has passed legislation creating a new labor category of “WEP worker,” so “it’s our opinion that they are employees.”

Instead of taking part in WEP, a number of nonprofits are helping people off the welfare rolls and into stable jobs through alternative programs. University Settlement on Manhattan’s Lower East Side has run the Community Jobs Network since last year, helped people pursue internships and volunteer work that leads to employment. The program seeks to identify people’s work skills and find out what kind of jobs are appropriate and available. The settlement house also offers services such as child care and peer counseling during the training process.

“Our interest is long-term employment, not getting people off the welfare rolls,” says Michael Zisser, University Settlement’s executive director. In 1996, 60 percent of the 85 people who participated found work, and nearly all of them are still employed.

Zisser and his colleagues are trying to convince the Giuliani administration to allow welfare recipients to enter programs like Community Jobs Network rather than WEP, but they haven’t won any concessions thus far.

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Ultimately, Liz Krueger argues, the main purpose of workfare is to purge the welfare rolls and save the city money. “The savings from sanctions are humongous,” she says. “Of course, we don’t economically figure in the resulting destitution as a cost to the city.” Therefore, she says, her organization refuses to cooperate with the city by taking WEP workers for its government-funded food programs.

But Krueger may be hard-pressed to find enough allies to stop the non-profitization of workfare. “With a few exceptions, nonprofits do not appreciate that workfare does not work,” explains Maurice Emsellem, an attorney with the National Employment Law Project, a nonprofit law firm for the working poor. “There’s no communication among the nonprofits. What it’s going to take is leadership within the community to reach a unified position and to develop a strategy that’s proactive rather than reactive.”