POP, GOES THE MAYOR

The city’s welfare and parks agencies are nearing an agreement to continue placing public assistance recipients in short-term park jobs for at least the next year.

In November, the Human Resources Administration stopped assigning New Yorkers on welfare to the Parks Opportunity Program (POP), an initiative started by HRA and the Parks Department only eight months earlier. The program provides 11.5-month positions--raking leaves, picking up trash, cutting lawns and maintaining gardens--paying $9.38 an hour, plus union benefits, to welfare recipients approaching their five-year time limits on federally funded benefits.

The employees also are given one day a week off, with pay, to attend education and job training programs from GED and ESL classes to courses on landscaping and garden maintenance. Parks officials say most workers take advantage of those classes, and HRA claims that of the first 470 workers to leave their parks jobs, 25 percent have found full-time jobs elsewhere.

Making their first comments on the issue since Mayor Bloomberg took office in January, city officials last week said HRA and Parks are discussing adding more workers to the program and expect to reach an agreement soon. At a City Council hearing last Thursday, HRA Deputy Commissioner Seth Diamond said revitalizing POP “is currently under discussion.”

Since the Giuliani administration froze the program in November, the number of POP workers has dropped from 3,500 to 2,900, as people who complete the program leave and their posts remain unfilled. Bloomberg officials have not yet decided how many positions they will add.

Diamond also assured the council that his agency does not plan to replace POP workers with interim workers hired by Tempforce, a Long Island temp agency with which Giuliani signed a contract last fall. Under that agreement, another Giuliani decision that HRA says it is re-evaluating, Tempforce is paying welfare recipients $7.95 an hour without benefits for jobs with public agencies and private companies, mostly in clerical positions.

As far as the Parks Department and open space advocates are concerned, the POP labor is essential. Deputy Commissioner Bob Garafola credited the workers for helping keep the parks clean. Added Mike Klein of the advocacy group New Yorkers for Parks, “If you lose those 3,500 workers, it will be a devastating blow to the city’s parks.”