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“Working for My Benefits:” Brenda Steward Describes the Work Experience Program (WEP) in New York City

During the 1960ís and 1970ís welfare reform movements from the left sought to increase benefits and expand community power, but in 1996 critics from the right passed the federal Welfare Reform Act to limit the program by imposing time-limits and restrictions on welfare benefits. In New York City, the Work Experience Program (WEP), or workfare, initiated in conjunction with the 1996 act, required welfare recipients to “pay off” their welfare benefits by working menial jobs for the city at well below minimum wage. Participants in the program do not receive wages, but simply continue to receive their welfare benefits. In addition, the program confines people who often have skills to do mindless, unskilled work while they are deprived of basic rights such as the right to unionize. Brenda Steward is a WEP worker who has been working with WEP Workers Together to demand improvements to the program.

Listen to Audio:

STEWARD: Well, I’ve been involved in the WEP Program for a little over two years. I originally came into the WEP Program, I was laid off from my former job. I was working with a community-based organization with teenagers and young adults, getting them work experience and also allowing them to obtain their GED. And through budget cuts they were forced to lay me off. I was forced to go onto the public assistance roll and through that they said it was mandatory that we work for our benefits. So they placed me in the WEP Program, which was suppose to give me work experience

JACKSON: And were did they place you. What was the job they assigned you to?

STEWARD: Well they placed me in the Department of Social Services, in one of the IS Centers which is the Income Support Center. And I was doing clerical work there.

JACKSON: And what was that experience like initially?

STEWARD: Basically the majority of the people that were there were people that were on staff being paid a full salary and I worked alongside of those staff people. But after I was there for a few months, the director of the center was very pleased with the work that I was doing. I worked with a group of social workers, case workers, doing filing answering phones and what they called the Winro Report, which is a statistical report of recertification. Because there was such a backlog in our Income Support Center, they asked me to take on the role of doing just the Winro Report. In a normal setting, if I were on staff, and I had been doing that, they would have considered that a promotion, something that is generally handled by a supervisor or maybe an office manager. In my case I was just working for my benefits.

JACKSON: No change?

STEWARD: No change in salary, no change in my position. When I went into the WEP Program I already had the skills that I was doing there, so they didn’t really give me that particular job skill. I brought the skill with me when I came there, but after being there for two years, we were told that our names would be submitted to personnel so that we could possibly be hired in those positions since we were already working. Rather than train somebody else for that position, let us work in those positions and put us on staff for full salary. Well my name was submitted over a year ago and I haven’t had a response from anybody as of yet.

Source: Interviewed by Janine Jackson, 1996
Courtesy of Labor at the Crossroads

See Also:"We Want Real Jobs:" Sandra White and Brenda Steward on the Work Experience Program in New York City