HRA MAKES A CASE FOR MORE WORK FROM ITS RANK AND FILE

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With only six months left in their welfare regime, Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Human Resources Administration Commissioner Jason Turner have quietly begun consolidating the jobs of thousands of the city’s welfare staff practically overnight. Pointing to the agency’s track record of mistakenly closed cases, misplaced child care vouchers and rent checks delayed for six months or more, advocates for New Yorkers on public assistance are bracing for an even rockier end to the administration than they’d expected.

In early May, HRA began merging into one job the responsibilities of two types of employees: eligibility specialists–who determine the need of each welfare applicant–and caseworkers, who disburse benefits like job training and child care vouchers. After just 10 days of training, voila, they are dubbed Job Opportunity Specialists. Between now and the end of the year, HRA plans to put its 4,000 caseworkers through the program, in classes of 250 per session.

The substance of the plan may not be a bad one, say union leaders and welfare advocates. It’s actually a return to the HRA of the 1960s, when a single employee handled all facets of a recipient’s case and could more easily address different problems as they arose. But rushing employees through such a short training period, they fear, could exacerbate the glitches many New York families on public assistance already face.

“Our members have been doing these jobs for 12 and 15 years,” said Bill Henning, vice president of Communications Workers Local 1180. “Two weeks is simply not enough time to get people caught up on what are rather intricate procedures. It’s a prescription for disaster.” Henning’s union has been able to halt the plan, at least for now. Last Wednesday, at the union’s request, State Supreme Court Judge Barbara Kapnick issued a temporary injunction forcing the city to address concerns over possible employee contract violations. Once those details are ironed out, however, the conversion is expected to proceed.

While it is unclear why HRA has decided to make this change now–calls to the agency were not returned by press time–the plan fits in neatly with the city’s broader goal of moving New Yorkers off the welfare rolls. A new state program called Safety Net allows people to continue collecting benefits after their five-year eligibility for federal welfare assistance expires, but HRA boss Turner has said the city aims to push all but 20 percent of the 50,000 families nearing their time limits into jobs. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the first 400 graduates of the new training program were assigned to work with those families specifically.

Whatever the rationale, welfare advocates predict HRA’s usual mix-ups–lost paperwork, delayed payments and endless waits for appointments–will not be getting any better. For this they blame a shrinking staff, which is currently half the size it was in 1994, as well as a cut in training. New HRA workers once received three months of orientation; now they get just two weeks. At a meeting in early May, Linda Schleicher, a former caseworker and an official at Local 371, told welfare advocates that this new HRA initiative is likely to make those mix-ups worse: “Whatever chaos recipients have encountered in the past at welfare centers will be multiplied this summer.”