As congress debates the future of welfare, New York’s municipal workers union and the welfare recipients it once represented are trying to keep a valued work program from becoming a thing of the past.

Once favored by conservatives and liberals alike, the Parks Opportunity Program is now caught in a tangle of tight funding and messy politics. Advocates say its fate hinges on the ability of the union to reclaim POP workers as members, but the union has problems of its own.

POP was first approved by the City Council in 2001, and quickly became the country’s largest job-training program for welfare recipients, employing roughly 3,500 single parents in its first year. Not only were participants unionized and given paychecks instead of welfare checks, but they helped keep the city’s parks clean at a relatively low cost to the city. Their tasks included everything from sanitation and maintenance to landscaping and playground monitoring.

One survey, released by advocates in March, found that the program dramatically improved the lives, education and self-esteem of its participants. The economic justice advocacy group Community Voices Heard used survey data from 101 former workers to compare the program’s first phase, which ran from 2001 to 2002, to other workfare programs. The report generally favors POP, but also notes some shortcomings. For one thing, just 15.5 percent of those employed had jobs one year later; despite their new skills, many reportedly faced barriers to employment, including a weak job market and lack of child care.

City politics have also worked against the program. In 2002, the Bloomberg administration cut the service term down from 11-and-a-half months to six. “The city’s taken a good program and watered it down to nothing,” charges Oliver Gray, associate director of District Council 37. That union represented the program’s participants–until last year.

Facing deep budget cuts in 2003, the parks department and Human Resources Administration decided to stretch their dollars by decreasing each worker’s wages by nearly $2 an hour. After failing to get even a 25-cent increase above that level, DC 37 Executive Director Lillian Roberts decided to drop POP workers from her union, rather than allow a precedent of such low pay for her members. But Treasurer Mark Rosenthal and other leaders in Roberts’ union were horrified–at the very least, they maintain, all parks workers need union benefits and other protections. The rift, now widened by other disputes, still divides the union.

The POP of today barely resembles its earlier incarnation. Workers are paid only $7.50 per hour, compared to $9 to $12 in 2001. At a March panel discussion sponsored by Community Voices Heard, Maribel Pe–a, a maintenance worker in the program, took the mic to describe the hardship of participating while she raises two sons. “I can barely make it right now,” she shouted. Although Pe–a praised the city for the program, she doesn’t understand why she’s doing the same work as Parks staff, but without benefits or equal pay. “This program as it is now creates a second class of workers,” she said.

Meanwhile, the city’s Human Resources Administration is keeping its plans quiet. A spokesperson said no official at the agency would comment on the program. At the March City Council hearing on HRA’s budget, Councilmember Gail Brewer asked Commissioner Verna Eggleston if the administration planned to keep the POP budget funded at $53 million next fiscal year. Eggleston covered the microphone and whispered with her finance aide. Instead of answering, she spoke about other transitional jobs programs. Brewer persisted. Eggleston paused again, and said softly, “I think so.”