Over six years, Brooklyn resident LaShaunette Honor, 28, worked several part-time temporary administrative assistant jobs and received public assistance. After a recent two-week assignment, she landed a job with the Fund for the City of New York making $2,022 per month. She says her case with the Human Resources Administration (HRA), the city’s welfare agency, will be terminated in December.
Honor built her first relationship with a temp agency after completing a training and job-placement program. Temping wasn’t her ideal choice for work, but it was available.
“You’ve got to go for what you can get for that moment,” she said of temping. “The best thing I know is the agency. You can’t sit there and twiddle your thumbs. I’ve got to stay sharp.”
While “staying sharp” ultimately landed Honor a full time job, workforce practioners see the growing temp industry as both as a path to full time employment for those on welfare and a fraught choice filled with potential bureaucratic and practical pitfalls.
Honor viewed temping the way much of the workforce does, as a common way of getting work experience and a paycheck, an employment backup you know is out there. But for many recipients of public assistance, temporary assignments can reduce or cut off needed support payments – and reduce city payments to the contractors who oversee them, as well. It’s a difficult choice between the positives of earning income and learning new skills versus the negatives of inconsistency and insecurity.
If a temp job pays well enough to make a welfare recipient ineligible for public assistance, he or she can reapply when the job is over. A parent or caretaker would reapply for Temporary Aid to Needy Families, or TANF, for which the maximum amount of time it can take for benefits to begin again is 30 days, according to HRA spokesperson Barbara Brancaccio. That person would receive retroactive benefits plus benefits going forward, Brancaccio said. Single adults who reapply for public assistance, such as Safety Net, could wait a maximum of 45 days for benefits to kick in again, with no retroactive benefits. “You can go on and off public assistance as many times as you need to over the course of a year,” she said.
Calculating the level of income that makes a person eligible or ineligible for benefits is difficult, Brancaccio said, because of the different variables that make each situation unique. “It’s so complicated, every situation is different, every family is different,” she said. (However, a new tool called Access NYC just debuted online to help people see which benefits they may be eligible for.)
Ben Thomases, president of FirstSource Staffing, a for-profit staffing agency with the mission of helping low-income job seekers with barriers to employment enter the workforce, said he has worked with job seekers who received public assistance but turned down temporary assignments because it would reduce their benefits to reflect their new income before the job turned permanent.
“It’s a big gamble to take temporary assignments,” Thomases said. The job seekers who can’t afford to take the gamble are missing out on the opportunity to build a relationship with an agency, which he said is an important step in finding permanent employment. Honor found her job through his company.
FirstSource Staffing also works with community-based organizations, or CBOs, that contract with the city to help welfare recipients enter the labor market. CBOs receive payments from the city based on their success, which is measured in three-, six- and nine-month “retention milestones.” But some CBOs don’t recommend or use temp agencies as an employment option for people who receive public assistance.
Andrea Vaghy, deputy director of client services for the Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation, said her agency doesn’t look at temporary employment agencies as options for clients anymore because of the risks recipients face in losing the full complement of public assistance. Once a client finds employment, NMIC must report it to HRA immediately and the client’s benefits are recalculated soon after. When a client loses employment, he or she has to apply for welfare all over again. “It can be a big headache,” Vaghy said.
NMIC recently entered a performance-based contract with HRA to help welfare recipients receive training and find and retain jobs. Vaghy said working with temp agencies interferes with her organization’s ability to meet its retention milestones. But at the same time she thinks temporary jobs can be beneficial to clients because they can provide a useable work reference, allow people to explore career opportunities and give workers a sense of accomplishment. Without those things, clients can be hard to place, she said.
Maggie Peck, director of workforce development at Times Square Ink, said she discourages her clients who receive public assistance from taking temporary jobs if they don’t come with the opportunity to turn permanent. “We discourage them, to be frank,” she said. “Stability is a big challenge for our clients.”
A workforce development program located on site at the Midtown Community Court, Times Square Ink has operated with a grant from the HRA for the past five years to target people with significant barriers to employment, such as criminal offenders, former substance abusers and long-term public assistance recipients. If these clients on public assistance temped, had their benefits reduced, and then lost the job, Peck said, “A month later they’re worse off than they were weeks ago.”
Since the overarching goal of HRA’s Welfare to Work program is job retention, temporary employment may indeed seem like the wrong path. But with 2.9 million people involved in temporary work in 2005, nearly triple the number from 1990, it’s a burgeoning trend. Over the course of 2005, U.S. staffing firms hired 12.1 million employees. More than 5.5 million of them moved on to permanent jobs, according to an employee survey conducted by the American Staffing Association earlier this year.
For its most recent six-month period, HRA reported that in December 2005, 1,974 welfare cases were closed due to people earning income. By June 2006, 1,523 of those people, or 77.2 percent, had retained employment, according to spokeswoman Brancaccio.
The Work Experience Program, administered by HRA and designed to help bring public assistance recipients to self-sufficiency, gives participants opportunities to work for wages. Bronx resident Barbara Cintron will begin a new WEP assignment later this month. Cintron currently earns $67.50 every two weeks doing clerical work two days a week, and also searches for jobs three days a week through the HRA’s Back to Work program. She hasn’t been able to find a job lately, although she has work experience in data entry and customer service. She recently went to a temp agency in the hope of finding a job at Mount Sinai Hospital because she heard it uses temporary employees.
Cintron, 32, said she isn’t worried about having her TANF cut if a temporary assignment doesn’t turn permanent. “Even if it’s for Christmas, I don’t mind,” she said. Her main concern is receiving Medicaid, plus childcare for her son when she does find a job, she said.
HRA provides transitional benefits, such as Medicaid, food stamps and a MetroCard for up to six months to people making their way into the workforce and out of the welfare system. Michael Scarborough, of Washington Heights, completed his WEP assignment with the Metropolitan Transit Authority and recently was hired as a subway cleaner. He brings his pay stub to NMIC so he can get a MetroCard. Scarborough, 52, lives alone, and said he wouldn’t have taken a temporary job if it had been offered to him. “That’s inconsistent,” he said. “Bills got to be paid.”
But when is a temporary job better than receiving public assistance? Some would say never. “There has to be certainty,” Peck said. “I think if it’s going to lead to permanent employment, certainly, and if it allows them to earn a living wage.”
But others see the need for the system to adapt to changing workforce realities. Instead of losing cash assistance for taking a temporary assignment, people who receive public assistance should be able “to make money and be provided with supplemental income to make ends meet,” said Thomases of FirstSource. Having to go on and off public assistance in between jobs reflects an inflexible welfare system, Thomases said. “In 21st Century New York, that’s not the reality that people are facing,” he said.