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“We Want Real Jobs:” Sandra White and Brenda Steward on the Work Experience Program 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 and Sandra White are WEP workers who have been working with WEP Workers Together to demand improvements to the program.

Listen to Audio:

WHITE: I worked in a bank called Credit Commercial de France in New York City. I was there for seven years and was laid off due to downsizing. And unemployment ran out after the six months and so therefore I had no other alternative but to go to social services. When you go to social services, after forty-five days, after filling out your application there’s a waiting period of forty-five days, they tell you in order to receive your benefits you have to work for your check. And they tell you at orientation, that this does not, which it’s true they tell you — it does not lead you to a job. You are just simply working for your check. I was placed in sanitation and I tell you it’s horrible. I know that there’s a lot of states that are going to be monitoring what New York does in terms of their WEP Program so that we can be a model to how WEP, if we have any problems they can look to us as a model. I’m telling you it’s not working, okay. I’m in sanitation and working there is horrendous.

The only people that we can go to, and thank god for these people, are WEP Workers Together and the Fifth Avenue Committee and those are the ones that are going out to the sites. I thank god for them all the time, because of them and the meetings that they have specifically for the WEP workers, they’re educating us on our rights through PESH (?) and through OSHA to where we can file these grievances. And they have been, our grievances have been submitted to them. And within two weeks they come out and if those grievances we have aren’t met then what sanitation will be is fined, per day, per WEP worker each day.

STEWARD: We literally have nobody that we can go to to complain. We have no union leader that we can go to to talk about any of our grievances, so what we basically had to do is begin to start our own organization, which we have done which is called WEP Workers Together. And so now we’re starting to organize each work site. We’re going to each work site individually to inform, as Sandy said, to inform the WEP workers of their rights. To find out what the conditions are at specific work sites, to see if they are being given the necessary equipment to make the job, at least, tolerable to work on. But beyond that we want to go to a point of where we’re getting real work experience that will lead to a real job. That’s what we want — real jobs. We don’t want to be on the welfare rolls we want real jobs. Now the system, the way it’s set up right now, is not giving any real job training for the market that is out there today. Because pushing a broom or raking leaves is not going to give you any preparation for working in an organization with computers or other necessary job skills. So we want real job training. When they say work experience we want to get some real hands-on. We want to have something like a mentor, you know, type of training, where we go in under somebody, an apprenticeship, under somebody that gives us some real job skills, so that we can even, after we finish, be hired maybe right there at the particular place where we’re being trained. And if not, then open up some other training to us where we can go to school to receive some real job skills. And if people want to further their education, they should be allowed to do so.

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

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