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Workfare opponents were out in force at last week’s City Council Governmental Operations committee hearing on a law that would establish a formal grievance procedure for participants in the city’s Work Experience Program (WEP). Unlike many City Council efforts to tinker with the city’s social services systems, which tend to die quietly in committee, the bill has the support of Speaker Peter Vallone and is likely to sail through the full Council.

The bill goes after one of the most controversial provisions of the workfare program–its sanctioning process through which WEP workers who break the rules or don’t show up for their workfare assignments get their benefits cut.

Workers frequently claim that they are unfairly sanctioned, and advocates argue that the current system offers little redress at the work sites, where most problems occur.

This bill would set up a new complaint system. WEP workers who believe they have been wrongly sanctioned would be directed first to complain to their site supervisor but would also have the right to appeal the supervisor’s decision. Also, participants could complain if the worksite supervisors fail to provide work equipment or uniforms, a perennial complaint among WEP workers who get sweeping and litter clean-up assignments.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Deputy Commissioner Seth Diamond of the city’s Human Resources Administration criticized the bill, saying the current system deals adequately with complaints and claiming that a new grievance procedure would “diminish the clear effectiveness of the [WEP] program in moving recipients from welfare to self-sufficiency.”

But Diamond admitted that WEP supervisors don’t have to file any documentation of how they handle workers’ complaints.

This bill is unofficially linked to Councilman Stephen DiBrienza’s transitional jobs bill, which creates 10,000 jobs for welfare recipients and is a big part of the opening salvo in DiBrienza’s campaign for Public Advocate–getting prominently mentioned in Issue 1 of DiBrienza Direct, his new campaign newsletter. But since the jobs bill, which seeks to start a new public works-type program, is more ambitious and complex, wrangling over it could hold both bills up.

Privately, the law’s backers aren’t confident that it will survive Mayor Giuliani’s wrath: They may have the votes to override a mayoral veto, but the administration will likely go to court to block the law if it passes.

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