Issue 217 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1998 Copyright Socialist Review

Letter from the US: welfare to work

Sharon Smith

Workfare kills. New York's workfare programme, for example, killed 50 year old Marsha Motipersad last year. She had worked for 17 years as a secretary at New York's Children's Aid Society, until she had two heart attacks and was forced to give up her job in 1994. She then applied for disability benefits, but the government turned her down. That was how she ended up on welfare. In 1996 she was forced, along with tens of thousands of other welfare recipients, into New York's 'Work Experience Programme' (WEP). She was then forced to submit to a physical examination by the Health Services Systems (HS Systems), a for-profit medical clinic which decides which welfare recipients are physically fit to work for their welfare cheques. HS Systems categorised Motipersad as 'employable' in spite of her history of coronary artery disease. She was then assigned to a WEP job filling out time sheets for the city's parks department in Coney Island. She had to get up at 4.30am each morning and take three buses just to get to her job at an office in a draughty and damp sub-basement in a public toilet. Last June she had a third heart attack while at work. This time it was fatal.

Marsha Motipersad's story is only known because her family is suing the city of New York for her death. But her experience is a common one, shared by hundreds of thousands of welfare recipients all over the US who are being forced to work at dirty, dangerous and demeaning jobs for sub-minimum wages - often replacing union workers. Those who suffer from health problems after decades of living in poverty are treated as if they are welfare cheats by companies like HS Systems, which is paid $6 million per year by the city of New York.

More than 80,000 welfare recipients are forced to submit to examinations by the 15 doctors at HS Systems each year. Most are deemed able to work. Case workers then must give every recipient a computer generated job, even when it is obvious that they are not medically fit to work. 'We get the paperwork saying these people are employable, but we can tell by looking at them that it is a joke. Their bodies are swollen or broken. The recipients can wind up doing any sort of job,' explained one case worker.

Some days more than 700 people are seen by the doctors at HS Systems. Many must stand and wait for hours in the crowded waiting room before being called - by a number, not by name. Even if they have to lean on a cane or a walker, they are not allowed to bring a nurse or relative to help them, though the clinic has no access for the disabled. Many are left standing in thin paper gowns which leave them exposed, holding blood or urine samples, waiting for an examination which often lasts no more than two minutes. Spanish speakers are often spoken to in English.

Gloria Jimenez, aged 51, had worked for 22 years in a belt factory, but became unemployed after the factory closed down. Now she suffers from severe arthritis in her hands. After a brief physical examination conducted in English - a language she cannot speak - HS Systems deemed her able to work at a job sweeping streets. 'I had worked all my life, and then I was forced to do something I couldn't do. The doctor never even looked at my hands,' she said. Jiminez missed work one day when her arthritis flared up and lost all of her welfare benefits.

Furthermore, as WEP workers in New York have discovered, workfare rarely leads to a permanent job. Most welfare recipients find that, after their six month assignment ends, they are no closer to earning a pay cheque than before. For example, Linda Bailey, a mother of three, was a WEP worker at the Department of Transportation for six months. When her assignment ended, she was turned down for a permanent job there. She ended up back on welfare, still looking for a job. She had to pay her babysitter in milk and eggs while she searched for work.

In many states welfare recipients can lose their cash benefits and food stamps for offences as minor as missing a single appointment or refusing a work assignment with late night hours. In Mississippi a recent study showed that the number of families cut off welfare for violating one of the many rules of the workfare programme outnumbered those placed in jobs by a margin of almost two to one. The jobs simply do not exist for welfare recipients to enter the workforce. Even with record low unemployment across the US over the last year, the unemployment rate for black women who have not completed high school is still 21 percent. In the Midwest there are on average 22 workers for every job paying a poverty level wage, and 97 workers for each job paying a livable wage.

To add insult to injury, New York City's WEP workers are classified as 'trainees' who are exempt from the basic protections which apply to other workers. They are also denied the right to organise into unions. WEP workers assigned to clerical jobs are often told they must clean toilets. Others have been ordered to handle dangerous chemicals without protective gear, or are denied access to drinking water or toilets. 'It's like a chain gang,' said Wayne Gargrove, a former lab technician who is now a WEP worker picking up garbage.

The threat posed by workfare to the unionised workforce could not be more obvious. 'It's an attempt to substitute one class of poor people for another class of workers, who, if you succeed, will become poor themselves,' argues Paul Booth, director of organising for a city workers' union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). 'The politicians are trying to drive down the standards of the rest of the workforce. That's their brilliant and evil motivation.'

But the employers' plan is backfiring. Tens of thousands of WEP workers have joined the fight to unionise in New York City - 20,000 have signed union cards through the Association for Community Reform Now (ACORN), while 8,000 have signed cards through AFSCME's District Council 37. The city refuses to recognise either WEP union, but this has only convinced the WEP workers they must fight harder. Demonstrations by groups of WEP workers against what has become known as the 'Worker Exploitation Programme' have become a common sight at job sites all over New York City.

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