Workfare Experiment Meets
Resistance From Nonprofits

Karen Winner
American News Service

NEW YORK -- In one of the grandest experiments in welfare reform, the administration of Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is seeking to enlist private nonprofit organizations in an effort to find slots for tens of thousands of welfare recipients who must work in exchange for their benefits.

But this extension of the "workfare" concept has run into resistance from a quickly organized coalition of nonprofit agencies that are refusing to place the welfare recipients at their sites, citing their objections to Giuliani's reform program.

In the view of these dissenters, the Work Experience Program forces welfare recipients to work without hope for full-time employment; denies them the opportunity to pursue higher education and vocational training; drives down wages and living standards for all workers; and displaces a shrinking city work force and weakens the unions that represent them.

Meanwhile, city officials have quietly begun handing some voluntary organizations the ultimatum of either going along with the city's workfare initiative or losing city funding and contracts.

Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan says that while the concept of workfare is "wonderful," Giuliani's current version of workfare is akin to slavery.

"Nobody in their right mind would disagree with the concept of workfare -- giving people the opportunity to work and learn a skill," said Bretton-Granatoor, making reference to Maimonides, the medieval rabbi, physician and philosopher who said the highest form of charitable work is teaching someone to be self-sufficient.

"When people don't have the right to address grievances, are denied unionization, denied adequate changing facilities, when they are not treated right -- it's tantamount to a modern version of slavery," he said.

The synagogue, which operates several charitable programs, is one of 140 nonprofit organizations here that have signed a so-called Pledge of Resistance to the city's Work Experience Program, the nation's largest workfare initiative. The pledge assails the program as unjust and calls for Giuliani to develop alternatives including the creation of new jobs.

Some large agencies such as Catholic Charities have chosen not to sign the pledge but are nonetheless refusing to take workfare workers, in opposition to the policy. In Milwaukee, private agencies opposed to Wisconsin's statewide workfare program have begun circulating a petition modeled after New York's Pledge of Resistance.

More than 200,000 welfare recipients in New York have passed through workfare in the past two years, according to city figures. While in the program they receive cash benefits equaling the federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour. The city says they are not technically "employees" and so do not have the right to union representation.

The city plans to at least double the size of the program by year 2000, partly in response to the dictates of state and federal welfare-reform legislation. But after filling most of the slots in the parks and sanitation departments along with other assignments, the city is now looking to the nonprofit sector to make room for the overflow of workfare recipients.

Despite initial denials by city officials, The American News Service has learned that the administration has already begun to make the policy mandatory at eight nonprofit sites where services are delivered under contract with the city.

Referring to resistance to the Work Experience Program, Renelda Higgins Walker, spokeswoman for the New York City Human Resources Administration said, "The attitude that these organizations have is a disservice to those individuals on WEP and the WEP program itself because they have equated work with slavery." She said many welfare recipients with little or no work experience are already getting valuable training in their nonprofit assignments, and that new placements must be found in order to meet state and federal guidelines.

The city workfare plan is dividing as well as uniting some nonprofit organizations. Some welfare experts believe nonprofit organizations may provide better workfare opportunities than do public agencies. They say recipients are more likely to learn skills that could lead to regular jobs in nonprofit assignments, than at city agencies, where they typically perform manual labor that does not involve special skills.

Giuliani adviser Anthony Coles estimates that only two per-cent of the 38,000 people currently enrolled in workfare are assigned to nonprofit organizations. City officials say that as the program more than doubles next year they expect nonprofits to pick up a larger part of the burden.

"The real issue is whether workfare can be structured in a way that will lead people into jobs. There is a legitimate role for nonprofits to play," said James Krauskopf, dean of the Milano Graduate School of Management and Urban Policy at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan.

The Washington Heights Inwood Coalition, a nonprofit organization, is helping to coordinate the placement of WEP workers in Manhattan and the Bronx, and receives city funding for doing so. Coordinator Willie Comans said he has assigned workfare recipients to 150 nonprofit institutions, and that the pledge is not hampering the effort. Comans added that many WEP workers at nonprofit sites have moved on to permanent jobs, though he had no exact numbers.

One welfare recipient who was interviewed there said she has been working as a telephone receptionist since March, in exchange for her welfare benefits. The woman, who did not want to use her name, said she has been sending out resumes and looking for work on her days off but has not had any luck so far.

"I am trying to find a real job," she said, insisting that she will be successful in landing permanent employment.

Some believe the nonprofit and religious coalition opposed to workfare could create a climate that would make it politically unpopular to accept the WEP workers, but doubt that the city's plan will be stymied. The city has more than 250 contracts with nonprofit agencies to deliver more than $324 million of social services, according to figures provided by the Human Resource Administration. Many of them would be hard-pressed to refuse the city's overtures.

In an initial interview, Human Resources Administration spokeswoman Walker denied that the city was forcing any of these nonprofit organizations to create workfare assignments.

But Richard Litman, who oversees contracts with eight nonprofit social service centers located in city-owned buildings, said these private agencies are already being required to take WEP workers as a condition of renewed funding.

"There's legitimate work that needs to be done and this gives people experience to move into permanent jobs," said Litman, assistant deputy commissioner of the Human Resources Administration's Office of Land Use Review.

In addition, the administration is circulating contracts that bear the title "Request For Proposals for Sponsorship of Multi-Service Centers" that explicitly spell out the provision requiring the placement of WEP workers. The American News Service obtained a copy of the contract from the Urban Justice Center, one of the organizations behind the resistance pledge.

In a follow-up interview, Walker confirmed that the workfare requirement has been imposed on some nonprofit organizations. When asked if the mandate would extend to all private agencies, she said, "As of today, there are no plans, but that could change." In a further clarification, Walker called back to say the city planned to target only those agencies that use city buildings. "We're not going to force (other) nonprofits to sponsor WEP workers," she said.

Some nonprofits find themselves in a middle position between the Giuliani administration and signers of the pledge.

"The pledge was premature given the reality of workfare," said Jeanne Bergman, senior policy analyst at Housing Works, a New York City organization that provides housing and other support for people with AIDS. "We wanted to keep the door open to develop a way of integrating WEP workers into meaningful job training."

She added, however, that the organization would not accept WEP workers under the current workfare design.

"In our opinion, a two-tiered structure is problematic -- no comparable pay, no comparable rights in the workplace. It also raises questions about supervision and hiring decisions," said Bergman, explaining that people with AIDS are protected by strict confidentiality rules, and breaches might occur if WEP workers are placed there involuntarily. "It's important that people who work here want to work here," she said.

The Rev. Kevin Sullivan, chief operating officer of Catholic Charities, one of the largest providers of social services in New York City, said the agency will not take any WEP workers unless it has a say in setting the practices and policies for those workers. He added: "It's my belief very strongly that people on welfare want to work -- so the issue is jobs."

Heidi Dorow, who is helping to coordinate the resistance for the Urban Justice Center, said as many as 500 organizations may wind up signing the pledge. She said some of them have contracts with the city, although she didn't know exactly how many, and realize they could lose their funding as a result of the campaign.

Other members of the New York coalition include the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, the Legal Aid Society and Stephen Wise Free Synagogue.

The concept of the pledge has been borrowed by Milwaukee activists who are members of the advocacy group called "A Job is a Right." Spokesman Phil Wilayto said 30 organizations have signed what is called the "Pledge of Resistance and Non-Cooperation with W-2." Sounding a similar cry to the one heard in New York, he said the state's W-2 workfare program "forces thousands of mainly single mothers to work at dead-end jobs for minimum or below minimum wages, with little hope for full-time employment."

In New York, nonprofit opponents say they would reconsider their position if workfare paid better and involved specific training for jobs in city government and the private sector. So far, however, there have been no high-level meetings to thrash out the differences.

Critics of workfare, including labor unions, say that the long-term solution is to generate new jobs in a city where unemployment is running at 9 percent, according to New York State Department of Labor figures for the city. Giuliani has promised to work with unions in capturing federal funds for private sector job creation. In the meantime, the Giuliani administration is expected to keep up the pressure on the nonprofit sector.

Posted December 9, 1997
Copyright ©1998 American News Service

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