After a last-minute decision by the Giuliani administration to hire a temporary staffing agency to place thousands of welfare recipients into city jobs, the city’s welfare agency is now signaling its intention to back away from the plan. If that happens, it could mark the first time the Bloomberg administration has chosen to overhaul a Giuliani-era welfare initiative.
In early September, the Human Resources Administration signed a $75 million contract with Tempforce, a Long Island-based staffing agency that is supposed to place more than 4,500 welfare recipients in $7.95-an-hour city jobs as parks workers, administrative clerks, security guards, custodians and food service workers.
But although the contract was supposed to go into effect in October, it hasn’t gotten off the ground yet, and the new HRA leadership says it probably never will. “It’s not in place,” said HRA spokesperson Melinda Mousouris of the contract. “It’s being revisited.”
HRA won’t say when it will make a decision on how to proceed or what kind of temporary work model for welfare recipients it’s considering. But Mousouris asserted that it is re-examining the “balance of jobs in the private and public sectors.”
There’s plenty of pressure on officials to drop the contract entirely. The city’s leading public sector union says that it intends to sue the city for hiring nonunion labor if HRA does move forward with Tempforce. “There are serious legal questions regarding the validity of this kind of contract,” says DC 37 attorney Joel Giller. DC 37 has followed through on such threats before: In 1998, it initiated a legal challenge to the city’s major work initiative for welfare recipients, the Work Experience Program. That suit is expected to reach trial later this year.
At a demonstration on the steps of City Hall last Wednesday, union leaders joined welfare recipients in a raucous protest against the Tempforce contract. Recipients who are members of Community Voices Heard expressed outrage that the city had signed the Tempforce deal, particularly because it would replace the short-lived Parks Opportunity Program, which beginning in March placed recipients in union jobs at a higher wage, $9.38 an hour. The city’s existing plan, which HRA says it’s also revisiting, is to release each of those 3,500 employees as they reach the end of their 11-month assignments.
“To pay us less than $8 an hour for what we do is not right,” said CVH member Emma Maynard. “We use blowers. We use lawnmowers. It’s not like we’re flipping burgers.”
Welfare experts have also questioned whether Tempforce, a traditional temp agency, should have been awarded such a large contract working with welfare recipients, many of whom have health difficulties, substance abuse issues and limited literacy. For its part, Tempforce says that critics have overstated the reach of their work with the city. “The contract’s just for processing payroll,” argued Kay Cavendar, a public relations representative for Randstad, Tempforce’s corporate parent.
However, the contract states that Tempforce would also be responsible for placing recipients in their assignments, ensuring their attendance and disciplining them if they miss work or break city agency rules. The document therefore concludes, “The personnel performing the services under this contract are employees of [Tempforce] and not of the [city].”
Noah Zatz of the National Employment Law Project wonders where those employees will be able to turn should they face work problems, such as safety issues or benefits questions. “The city shouldn’t farm out jobs to a temp agency,” Zatz said at Wednesday’s rally. “Temp workers are denied the rights, benefits and opportunities of regular employees, on top of being paid less.”