The Battle To Win A Fair Wage

by Jean Taddie

Ohio’s welfare system has been replaced with a workfare system. Workfare means that welfare clients who cannot find employment will be required to volunteer their time in return for their benefits. Supporters of workfare believe it will improve people’s self-sufficiency. Opponents argue that citizens may be forced to work for less than the federal minimum wage and workfare does not offer a long-term solution to employment barriers.

Governor George Voinovich’s plan to “shift Ohio’s welfare system from entitlement to employment” adds thousands of low-skilled workers into Ohio’s labor force. Ohio Department of Human Services Director Arnold R. Tompkins stated in a recent press release, “If we are to meet the objective of the new welfare system, more than 100,000 current clients will need to join the labor force in the near future.

The Ohio Works First welfare plan requires parents with children over the agree of one to engage in a qualified work activity for a least 30 hours per week in order to receive TANF benefits. According to Voinovich, the plan is designed to “help welfare recipients become self-sufficient and take personal responsibility for their families.

As TANF recipients throughout Ohio are having their benefits re-evaluated, many parents are being told that they must find work, and if an offer is made they must accept the job. People who cannot locate work for pay are required to volunteer at a location deemed acceptable by their caseworker.

Opponents to workfare argue that volunteers will not receive the protection employees are entitled to under federal law. At 120 hours per month, volunteers who receive $279 in TANF benefits for their family will effectively earn less than $2.40 per hour for their volunteer time. Volunteers make much less that the $4.75 minimum wage that employees receive. Theses low pay positions cannot support a family and they threaten workers in good paying jobs.

Ron, a married father of three, lives in an Ohio community with a depressed economy and was unable to find a good job. His caseworker sent him to do maintenance work at a local truck depot in return for his benefits. Other employees resented Ron since their company didn’t have to pay him. They felt their wages and jobs were in jeopardy as they sent Ron home saying they didn’t need him and they would sign in for him. Eventually, human services discovered that Ron was not working and cut his family’s benefits for two months.

Labor organizations are concerned that working people are at risk of losing good paying jobs to workfare volunteers who receive below minimum wages. Since the cash and benefits are paid by Human Services these mandatory volunteers are little or no costs to the “employer”. The AFL-CIO Executive Council voted in February to “support and encourage aggressive organizing campaigns among these new workers.” They state that workfare volunteers should be treated as workers under the law.

Opponents of workfare argue that the program does not provide long-term solutions to families in poverty. Human Service officials develop contracts with organizations that need volunteer workers. Caseworkers have the power to tell clients where they can and cannot work. Often clients are placed into low-skilled, dead-end positions. In addition, workfare’s time requirements make it difficult for people to get an education or find a better job.

Julie is a single parent of one daughter and a physical therapy student at Cuyahoga Community College. Knowing that she would soon be required to volunteer for her benefits, Julie looked for volunteer work that was related to her career choice. So she contacted and set up interviews with eight hospitals and chose to volunteer at three of the hospitals. One week after starting her hospital-school-mom schedule, her caseworker, told that her hospital work does not qualify as an approved work activity. She was then assigned to volunteer at a community center instead.

When ten tome TANF volunteers showed up at the community center July 1st, the staff did not expect them since they had not been informed that there were volunteers coming. The volunteers were told to sign in and then go home. “We didn’t have anything for them to do, and we can’t have them sitting around here all day,” one staff member said. Currently, Julie is appealing her caseworker’s decision and is fighting to keep her volunteer hours at hospitals where she can be helpful and learn, instead of a community center that doesn’t need her.

According to various welfare rights organizers, the poverty problem cannot be solved by creating pools of free labor. Although these stopgap measures may look good politically, they do not address the real poverty and unemployment problems. Welfare clients will only be able to obtain employment that supports a family when the skills and abilities then can supply match the needs and demands of employers in our increasingly technical society. Instead of offering workers at below market wages, the skills and education of this labor force should be improved. Caseworkers should emphasize GED and post-secondary education so their clients can fill good-paying private sector jobs.

Copyright for the Homeless Grapevine Issue 22, August-September 1997, Cleveland, Ohio