I am a participant in New York City’s Work Experience Program, which requires welfare recipients to work for their monthly checks and food stamps. I am fifty-year-old divorced man with five dependent children I want to support. I am ready and willing to work. I think the city’s program is basically fair, though it has some problems that need to be ironed out.
I have had full-time jobs for more than thirty-five years, earning as much as forty-seven thousand dollars a year. I have been an employment interviewer for the New Jersey Department of Labor, a controlroom operator for the Passaic Valley Sewage Commission, and an employment counselor at a private school in Manhattan.
But my life took an unfortunate turn after a serious back injury. I lost a job I loved – the one with the Jew Jersey labor department. I ended up on drugs and in a homeless shelter. I regret that chain of events, but with the help of my church, counseling, and a writing workshop, I quit cold turkey and have been clean for three years. I rent a room in a brownstone in Brooklyn and receive $256 a month in welfare and food stamps.
I do not want to be an anonymous welfare statistic. I want more than anything to earn an honest living again, perhaps as a coordinator of church-related community programs. I have a lot to offer.
Looking for a decent job, I sent out many resumes, but got no response. In February, the Work Experience Program assigned me and about thirty other welfare recipients between the ages of twenty and sixty to a sanitation garage in Brooklyn.
The first day, I was given a broom and a dustpan and told I would be putting in sexteen hours a week cleaning the garage. I couldn’t hang up my coat because I shared a locker with nine other crewmembers, and it was already jammed with bottles of cneaning solution, toilet brushes, and a plunger. The lock was broken. I couldn’t put my bag lunch in the refrigerator because the full-time garbage men had padlocked it.
The next day I asked for a pair of gloves, but they didn’t have any. When I said it was important because I had injured my hand at home, I was given a dirty, used pair. I was afraid my hand would get infected.
After a month, I was told that I would be working sixteen hours a week outside, sweeping the streets. When I asked for a dust mask, I was told they were on order. I was issued an army jacket, a knit cap, and a new pair of gloves but wore my own sneakers because they were out of boots. Each morning we walked with our equipment to a cleaning area more than a mile away.
The program is intended to help thirty thousand inexperienced workers enter the job force. It’s a great idea that I hope will get and keep many New Yorkers off welfare. Yet in the rush to put people to work, confusion has ensued. The workfare program doesn’t consider experience or education. I wish it provided for age and skill. And I wish the hours were more consistent. Now, for example, I am working twenty-four hours a week. A woman I know had to stop going to college classes in order to get to her work assignment. A homeless man didn’t come back to the garage because there was no place for him to shower. Full-time sanitation workers fear and resent us, because they are afraid we’ll steal their jobs.
The Work Experience Program has gotten some things right. We can take a day off to interview for jobs, as long as we present written verification, and some supervisors seem to be sincerely trying to help. I just hope the program will turn out to be a concerted effort to aid those who want to work, not just a political Band-Aid.
By Donald Mackey