Mixing the Message

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It’s hard to decide which is more surprising: what changed or what remained the same. When city officials announced guidelines for a new set of nonprofit workfare contracts in January, they stepped up pressure on contractors to find welfare recipients real, paying jobs. But anticipated plans to pour thousands of workfare assignments into the nonprofit sector aren’t materializing.

Both developments are welcome news for welfare-rights advocates, who have criticized the Giuliani administration for failing to help welfare recipients find decent employment. Still, the nonprofits and the mayor’s critics alike are left wondering what this new contract means for the city’s planned expansion of the controversial Work Experience Program (WEP).

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The majority of New York’s 35,000 to 38,000 workfare slots are in city agencies and include everything from picking up trash for the Parks Department to clerical work in local hospitals. The city’s Human Resources Administration (HRA), which runs the workfare program, won’t say how many people have been assigned to workfare. But over the course of a year, a given slot can be filled by several different workers, as participants find a real job, suffer sanctions for failing to comply with the program, or decide to abandon their welfare check.

Since 1994, six nonprofit agencies have managed a total of 3,400 WEP slots, generally outsourcing most assignments to other community groups, where the workers do clerical, maintenance and community service duties. Last month, those agencies had to join others in bidding for 11 new contracts spanning the next three years.

At a January 7 meeting with nonprofits–held at the exact same time as Mayor Giuliani introduced his new HRA chief Jason Turner to the City Hall press corps–officials outlined details of the nonprofit workfare plan. To the surprise of most everyone outside the agency, HRA announced that the contracts–which begin in July–will be limited to 300 assignments each, an overall reduction of 100 nonprofit workfare slots citywide.

“I thought they were going to increase the number massively,” says Peter Swords, executive director of the Nonprofit Coordinating Committee, echoing many others who follow the workfare program. As some observers note, the timing of the meeting was symbolic: This plan is the swan song of former HRA Commissioner Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, who told the City Council last spring that her agency expected to add 10,000 WEP assignments. She had led observers to believe a large number of these would be with nonprofits, and many neighborhood and religious groups mounted an anti-WEP campaign to convince nonprofits not to cooperate.

HRA says the new arrangement simply allows for a wider array of approaches to handling the workfare program. “Maybe a year from now we’ll kick ourselves for not multiplying the level of workers,” says Seth Diamond, deputy commissioner at HRA’s Office of Employment Services. “But we don’t want to overextend ourselves.”

A close look at the numbers shows why the city might be able to avoid the nonprofit expansion. According to the Independent Budget Office, in May 1997–the latest month available–a total of 2,202 WEP workers were assigned to nonprofits. That’s only 65 percent of the current contracts’ capacity.

Furthermore, pressure to meet federal work requirement goals isn’t as intense as many had thought. While the city’s own numbers are widely disputed, the state as a whole has achieved the necessary percentage of eligible public assistance recipients in work activities–at least for the time being. And if there are fewer people on the welfare rolls in the future, meeting the federal requirements gets easier.

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For the agencies that do sign up to run WEP slots, the rules have changed. The 11 agencies will be handed a more demanding contract than the one signed in 1994. Every year, each contractor will have to find paying jobs for at least 75 welfare recipients–or lose some of its funding. But there is a carrot along with that stick: Nearly half of the contract’s potential payout is tied to finding WEP workers employment outside the welfare system.

HRA will pay in the neighborhood of $125,000 annually to each of the contract agencies. In addition, they will earn $1,000 for each of their workfare participants who secures a full-time, paying job for at least 90 days, up to an annual ceiling of $115,000.

While the city required contract agencies to report on job placement in the past, there was no financial incentive. Vicki Cusare, director of the Italian American Civil Rights League, which has managed 1,200 workfare assignments for the city since July 1994, says her group has always kept up with the workers after they left WEP for employment. But she admits the new performance-based contract will require more paperwork. Other nonprofit executives say they won’t go after the new contract because the money is insufficient.

“We recognize we’re asking for a lean and efficient program,” Diamond says. The city insists the targets can be met, however. Apparently, some nonprofits agree. More than a few agency representatives at the HRA meeting said they would send in a proposal by the January 30 deadline.

Cusare also says her agency is going to reapply, but she might have been more shocked than most when the city spelled out the rules. The January meeting was the first indication her organization would be limited to 300 assignments. “We were surprised. We have more participants than that,” she says. “I guess we’ll have to cut a lot of sites out.”