Larger Than Life

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After spending countless hours fighting for higher wages and a grievance procedure for people working in welfare jobs, José Nicolau never made the time to talk up the issue that most affected his life: a lack of access to health care.

Nicolau and two other participants in the city’s Work Experience Program star in a new documentary, A Day’s Work, A Day’s Pay, about their efforts to lobby the city for job reforms. But at a screening in October at the home of producer Kathy Leichter, Nicolau was present only on the screen. The event was in fact a memorial service: He died on September 27, at the age of 45.

A recovered heroin addict, Nicolau suffered from cirrhosis of the liver. Immediately after leaving his workfare job as a janitor last January for a position as a mailroom clerk at Chase Manhattan Bank, the city closed his case and eliminated his medical benefits. His new post, classified as temporary, did not provide health insurance, and at $150 a week, the medication Nicolau relied on to keep his liver going became unaffordable. Nicolau stopped taking it about 9 months before his death.

“José was a very big fighter,” says Annette Jimenez, Nicolau’s girlfriend, who credits him for inspiring her to become a community organizer. “But he fought for everyone and forgot to fight for himself.”

Now, the producers of A Day’s Work plan to use his 50 minutes of fame to help train others to mobilize around issues affecting their daily lives. Mint Leaf Productions has already screened the film for several community groups and college students as part of their Workfare Media Initiative. Says Leichter, “Several viewers came up to me and said, ‘Watching it on screen, I felt like I could do that.'”

The film chronicles the lives of Nicolau, Juan Galan and Jackie Marte in their quest from 1997 to 2000 to push a bill through the City Council that created a few thousand minimum-wage jobs for people on welfare, along with a second piece of legislation that established a grievance procedure for complaints about inadequate work conditions. (In WEP, Nicolau earned $68 for 70 hours of work.)

Nicolau never got to see his work turned into action, because the Giuliani Administration refused to enforce the laws. A few months ago, however, the city began placing New Yorkers approaching their five-year limit on federal welfare benefits into $9.38-an-hour jobs in the parks and with the housing authority and other agencies.

Reforms can’t stop there, though, says Leichter, particularly with the changing of the guard in City Hall and the upcoming renewal of the federal Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Reconciliation Act.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg “doesn’t know much about us, so we have to get to him,” says Stephen Bradley of Community Voices Heard, which is collaborating on the Media Initiative. “If Bloomberg’s with us, it’ll be clear sailing. If he’s not, it’s a battle.”