Workfare Workers Worry About Labor Conditions

NEW YORK, Jan. 15 (IPS) -- Twenty years ago, "workfare" was a social experiment, in which some U.S. welfare recipients worked for the public sector part-time to receive benefits. Now, some experts warn, workfare may be the trend of the future. Across the United States, state governments are embracing workfare as a cost-effective means of forcing welfare recipients to help pay for part of the cost of their benefits. That process is expected to increase sharply this year as states implement new programs in line with legislation signed last year by President Bill Clinton which effectively ends federal welfare programs. "Until now, most states have not made extensive use of workfare programs, but there will be new incentive to do so because of the (1996) welfare reform initiative," says Mark Greenberg, senior staff attorney at the Washington-based Center for Law and Social Policy."In New York, the way things are going, you're going to have a quarter of a million people working in city agencies on workfare by the year 2002," argues Larry Holmes, a member of the organizing committee of Workfair, a New York coalition of workfare workers and their supporters.Workfare advocates say the program achieves several key goals: it puts people on welfare to work, teaches them job skills and helps local governments to run public services cheaply at a time of deep budget cuts. President Clinton has thus become a sometimes supporter of state workfare programs, arguing last year that the government needs to help people to treat welfare as "a means to find work, and not as a way of life." In New York City, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has already struck deals with several public-sector unions to ensure that welfare recipients can fill jobs cheaply that might otherwise be cut outright. City analysts estimate that between 40,000 and 70,000 welfare recipients are already working for the city, particularly in park maintenance, sanitation and some hospital work.But many of the participants in workfare programs are upset that in return for full workweeks, they often receive a package of benefits worth far less than the normal wages paid for the jobs they perform."They're a boss's dream," Holmes says of workfare workers. "They have no rights and they're paid almost nothing. (Employers) force us to work for nothing, putting downward pressure on wages and rolling back workers' rights." Workfare programs have a simple concept behind them: after about two or three years receiving welfare, recipients are forced to work if they want to continue receiving any money.For example, a single mother with two children, under a typical program, would be required to work between 36 and 42 hours, for which she would receive a cash grant of perhaps $350 a month, some $90 in vouchers to buy food and maybe $50 a week in vouchers to pay for other expenses, such as daycare for children. Added together, Holmes argues, such benefits actually net the worker slightly less money than she would make working the same amount of hours for the minimum wage, which by the end of this year will be $5.15 an hour. "It's a joke," he says.Some unions, notably those representing municipal employees, have fumed that the disparity in wages between a union worker and a workfare employee is so great as to tempt city officials and private-sector employers to prefer the latter. According to some preliminary estimates calculated by the New York Sanitation Department, workfare workers may earn as little as one-seventh of regular trash collectors, and they also lack the unionized workers' health, retirement and vacation benefits."When the federal legislation was pending, there was a great deal of concern that a large expansion of workfare could result in the displacement of other workers," Greenberg says."(Welfare recipients) are doing the jobs that union workers formerly did," Holmes says. "This is a big threat to both the city workers and their unions, and private-sector workers as well."The lead coalition of labor unions, the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), has not made a final decision on whether workfare is a positive or negative development, but many chapters protest its implementation, at least until its consequences are better understood.Several unions are conducting their own studies into the new workfare initiatives, an AFL-CIO spokesman says. Others have sought to block workfare workers from entering some heavily unionized jobs.Despite some union protest, the welfare laws passed by Congress last year, which shift most responsibility for welfare to state governments, expand rather than discourage the trend toward workfare.Under the new laws, state governments must turn in plans outlining how they intend to reduce their welfare rolls to Washington if they wish to avoid penalties; so far, 38 states have already turned in tentative plans. Most of the states have embraced workfare as a quick, if still experimental, means to cut their welfare populations within two to three years.Yet in states like New York, where workfare experiments have been in place for two decades, there are no clear signs that putting welfare recipients to work will net them regular jobs."In the previous evaluations of workfare programs, they have generally been found to have little to no impact on increasing the employment or earnings of those subject to the requirements," says Greenberg. Often, Holmes argues, even qualified workfare workers can put in two years of labor at a job without gaining any real chance of full-time employment with benefits. Most of the time, even though they work as hard as other laborers, workfare employees are not regarded as workers, but as welfare recipients, he says. But he contends that the New York courts have begun to recognize that workfare workers are entitled to basic workers' rights, including fair pay for work. In one recent decision, a New York court ruled that workfare employees are entitled to the same prevailing wages in an industry as other comparable workers.Yet with workfare still so experimental, the question of workers' rights remains vague. "There is tremendous potential for abuse in the system," Greenberg says."There are now only the most minimal federal safeguards for poor families."

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