Turning welfare workers into city employees

Proposal would make San Francisco first city to count workfare as jobexperience in civil-service sector.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

For more than five years Bob Shirley has swept trash from San Francisco's gutters in return for his welfare check. But when Mr. Shirley applied for a city street-sweeping job so he could climb his way off public assistance - and officially earn a paycheck - he says he was told he had no experience.

He's not alone. Fellow workfare veteran Emma Harris says that she and many others have been passed over. "Every time [city] jobs come up, our applications are ignored," she alleges.

But people in the city's workfare program are getting organized in an effort to open up such dead ends. Instead of a just-pay-your-dues system, they want workfare tasks to pave the way to city jobs - which pay well above minimum wage.

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If they succeed, they could transform the nature of workfare. San Francisco would become the first US city to consider workfare as work experience that ultimately could qualify thousands for coveted civil-service jobs. Rather than simply doing tasks to earn welfare benefits, workfare participants would be on a path toward full-fledged employment.

The idea could have far-reaching implications by legitimizing the work of people in workfare programs, experts say. "It helps people understand that this is real work that they are doing," says Maurice Emsellem of the National Employment Law Project.

Studies of "work experience" programs across the US suggest that employers do not currently have that perception of workfare. The Manpower Demonstration Research Corp., for instance, found "little evidence that unpaid work experience leads to consistent employment or earnings effects." And in New York, home to the nation's largest workfare program, only 10 percent of the workfare workers are moving on to jobs, public or private, according to Mr. Emsellem.

Workfare was greatly expanded by the 1996 welfare-reform law. Unable to find enough private-sector jobs for the recipients required to work, states have channeled more people into workfare. In Connecticut, for example, the number in workfare increased from 1 percent to nearly 23 percent of welfare recipients between 1994 and 1997.

Welfare officials say the ultimate goal is to get people into jobs, but workfare is not designed to do that. "What workfare is about is having people do something in exchange for their grant," says Dorothy Enisman, San Francisco's workfare program manager. While advocacy groups in New York, Los Angeles, and elsewhere have tried to extend unions, safety protections, and employment rights to workfare workers, the effort here would go further. At the same time, San Francisco is also experimenting with a new pilot program that would place welfare recipients in temporary wage-paying jobs.

"There's workfare, a city job, and this big gap in between," explains Ilana Berger, the lead organizer of People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER), a workfare membership group. Under the plan, still being developed, workfare would be counted as experience that could qualify participants for apprenticeships - and eventually jobs - as hospital laundry workers, street sweepers, subway-car cleaners, and porters.

Already working for the city

Workfare workers insist they are already doing public-sector work - but without the employment status and compensation. While they log 11 hours per week at minimum wage for their welfare check, their unionized civil-service counterparts earn between $14 and $17 per hour. Critics of the program say San Francisco has saved some $30 million by using workfare to deliver city services. The city uses about 800 workfare workers each day, but there are approximately 2,000 people in the system.

"Large numbers of people are just stuck out at workfare sites for long periods of time who have clearly demonstrated their ability to do the work. The problem is there is no process for them to move into permanent employment," says POWER director Steve Williams.

Unions here support the concept of improving workfare workers' wages and rights, but they have not taken a position on POWER's civil-service proposal. Josie Mooney, president of the San Francisco Labor Council, says the workers should at least be given credits so they can move up the civil-service ladder.

"People who have mastered jobs in their capacity as a workfare worker should have access to these jobs," Ms. Mooney says. "After all, isn't that the point, to move people from workfare to real work?"

Relying on private sector

But in an era of tenuous government budgets, city officials are quick to emphasize that private employers must carry the bulk of the welfare-to-work burden. And they are leery of increasing government payrolls.

Although public-sector employment is either static or on the decline in most cities, "there's always attrition and turnover," says Steve Savner, of the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington. If workfare workers could build up credits "that would help them get in the door, [that] is very positive and useful step."

The move would be both practical and symbolic, says Mr. Williams. "I don't think anybody has said that the public sector needs to be the sole employer for people moving from welfare to work. But the city is in a unique position to offer an example of a very clear, coherent, and productive way to provide an opportunity for people to move from welfare to work."

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