The city's Work Experience Program, which puts welfare recipients into public service assignments, is little better than a “public sector sweatshop,” according to a recent report from the welfare rights organization Community Voices Heard.
Under WEP, nearly 40,000 welfare recipients work between 20 and 30 hours a week at government agencies in exchange for their benefits. Union leaders have long charged that the program replaces unionized public employees with welfare recipients, in violation of state law.
Surveying 649 welfare workers, CVH provides evidence to support that charge. On duty as clerical aides, custodial assistants, and parks workers, the group found, WEP workers are doing much of the same work as entry-level city employees. More than three-quarters of the WEP workers reported that their jobs include tasks that are supposed to be reserved for union workers.
But instead of getting the $18,000 to $22,000 salary from an entry-level union position, each welfare recipient gets only $5,000 to $8,000. “It's a union busting tactic if there ever was one,” says John Krinsky, who co-authored the report.
Deborah Bell, Director of Public Policy at District Council 37, which represents Parks employees, says that WEP workers almost never get hired as salaried city employees. And the system isn't fair to current full-time staff either, she adds: As the number of inexperienced welfare workers increases, “more work and responsibility falls on the shoulders of the remaining civil service employees.”
WEP workers in the parks fare somewhat better than in other city departments, according to the Parks Department. The Parks Career Training (PACT) program has helped place over 1,600 WEP workers in private sector jobs over the past five years. Many other welfare workers complain that they often get shifted repeatedly from job to job without getting hired. “Workfare is really just going to run in circles,” says Verdin Rosemin, who currently does clerical work for the city's welfare agency–her fifth WEP assignment.
The city's new Transitional Jobs law was designed to improve WEP by establishing 2,500 one-year jobs for welfare recipients over three years–7,500 in all. The jobs will pay $7.50 an hour plus benefits and will provide on-the-job training.
But so far, program backers report that city officials have basically ignored the new law, which was passed over the mayor's veto in April and is supposed to be implemented by next January. “I don't think they're genuinely making an effort,” says Brooklyn City Councilman Steven DiBrienza, who sponsored the law. “And if they wait, they'll never get it up and running.”