Swept Astray

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“We feel that we are being used as individuals to work and clean all courts without the city paying checks or benefits,” read the letter to the editor of the civil service newspaper The Chief. The signers: 33 Bronx Housing Court “interns” enrolled in the city’s Work Experience Program. It is hardly a new story; critics of the city’s work-for-welfare program have been making the same point for years. These workers, however, have a new complaint–they insist they were lured into a janitorial training program by a promise that wasn’t kept.

“They told us at the orientation that we would get a real job. This is not a real job,” says Terry Boyd, who helped coordinate the writing and signing of the letter. She has been a Housing Court WEP intern for two years. “We’re just being used to do work that city employees used to be paid for and all we get are our [welfare] benefits,” Boyd adds. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

Boyd and about 140 other WEP workers have been assigned to clean Bronx courts for the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, which supplies janitorial staff to public buildings. For their first eight to 10 weeks on duty, the workers learn to sweep and clean through the agency’s Custodial Maintenance Training Program, which is supposed to prepare them for private employment.

But these trainees say that the official in charge of DCAS’ WEP brigade told them a job would be waiting after they completed their training. Workers assumed he meant a city job. Instead, they are still in their workfare assignments, and their supervisors have said they can’t arrange permanent jobs for the workers.

“[DCAS WEP director] Harris Colon told us that when we finished the training and everything, we were going to get a job,” says Norma Torres, a former Housing Court WEP worker who now cleans the Bronx DA’s offices. She feels betrayed by the program. “Doing this training, getting certificates–I worked hard. And for nothing.” Torres has been cleaning court buildings for over two years, often voluntarily working more than her assigned 32 hours a week. “They told us we’d get a job,” says another cleaner. “But we’ve gotten nothing.”

So when the Housing Court workers saw an article about WEP in The Chief, they felt compelled to draft the letter. “We figured that if we wrote them, then maybe they could help us try to get jobs,” says Boyd, who wrote the letter. Over half of the welfare workers on site signed it.

DCAS insists that the trainees misunderstood. “Nobody has ever told the WEP participants that they could take the test or training to be assured of a city job,” says DCAS spokesperson Denise Collins. “The idea is for them to be prepared for openings in the private sector. The program is not set up to provide for city employment.”

Nearly 3,000 WEP workers have been assigned to this training program since it started in 1997. Most drop out or leave welfare altogether; so far, only 375 of them have completed the training. DCAS has hired just 41.

Meanwhile, fewer than one in seven of the custodial workers in the Bronx courts are city employees. Indeed, the number of salaried janitorial jobs with DCAS has been slowly dwindling as welfare workers have arrived. In 1994, just before WEP was launched, there were 295 full- and part-time custodial court employees citywide. By 1997, there were 436-a total of 267 WEP workers and just 167 city employees.

Most city jobs that remain are for “custodians,” a low-level supervisory position that requires more specialized training than DCAS offers–in boiler maintenance, for example. With the agency’s encouragement, Boyd, Torres and another dozen or so of their colleagues took the civil service exam for custodial jobs last May anyway, along with 1,300 other applicants.

They won’t know their results until at least this spring, and DCAS has not yet announced how many jobs will be available. In 1997, the last time the agency hired WEP workers as employees, just 16 got jobs. “We have very limited openings and many more passers for the test than openings,” confirms Collins. “The training that we do for the certificate is not meant to be civil service exam training.”

The Housing Court trainees know all too well that openings are limited. “Some of them get discouraged and just leave,” says Boyd. “But I know maybe eight people that got jobs after this. Two girls went to work at K-Mart. One went to work at Macy’s. They’re all doing maintenance work.”

Others aren’t so lucky. Says Torres, “I’m looking for a job and everything. I take my newspaper, put applications here, put applications there. And nothing. It’s hard for me.”

Tracie McMillan is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer.