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My Personal Fight Against Slavery

October 10, 2014

I had originally intended to title this entry something like “New York Is Slave Country” (a nod to “New York Is Book Country”), “Slaves of New York,” “New York Is a Slave State,” but the more time that passed (getting computer time to write a blog entry is difficult unless I’m at Picture the Homeless or at library branch with more computers than users–the nearest to my current shelter is Hamilton Fish Park, which has four adult computers, and I have never been granted an extension at that location.  For obvious reasons, I will not say which branch I am at as I write this, but it is not one it is always convenient for me to get to) between now and April 2, when I lobbied against the WEP program in Albany, the less relevant the story seemed to be to anything that was going on.  With Steven Banks’s October 1 announcement that he was ending WEP in New York City, I seem to have a good window, although the entry is newly written.

Shortly before April 2, Ryan Hickey, the Housing Organizer at Picture the Homeless, told me that Community Voices Heard, an organization founded by low income black and Latino women that eventually incorporated men and poor and allied whites, was doing work against the “Work Experience Program,” and I contacted the appropriate person, Jennifer Hadlock, through CVH’s website. CVH is one of PTH’s allies, and at one point, they were in the same building on 116th Street, which is right next to where I was an audience member for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? last November.  (Nobody from NYC Brainiacs Meetup group passed the test to get on the show (only four people in total from that audience did), and we complained too much on it was pop culture.  I ended up next to someone who wasn’t from the group who thought that The Crucible is set during the Crusades, but he didn’t get on, either.)  This group, again, predominantly composed of people of color, freely describes the WEP program as slavery. (One Twitter cyberbully told me that he would sic the NAACP on me for calling WEP such, but I don’t think the NAACP has strong criticisms for CVH.)  I was to board a bus at Union Square that would take the entire group to Albany, where we would be joined by groups from other urban parts of New York, such at Poughkeepsie.

We were there to lobby in favor of two bills (the same bill, one in the Assembly, and the other in the Senate), A7119A and S6120A, titled Bill to Improve Opportunities for People on Public Assistance by Prohibiting Unpaid Labor of WEP.  The Assembly bill was introduced by Keith Wright (Harlem) and was also supported by Silver (Lower Manhattan), Titus (Queens), and Farrell (Harlem).  The Senate bill was introduced by Savino (Staten Island/Brooklyn [at one time she was my senator]), Stewart (Yonkers), Skelos (Long Island), Klein (Bronx), Avella (Queens), and DeFrancesco (Syracuse).  Although this is strong bipartisan support (Silver and Skelos are notoriously right-wing, and the previous time I went to Albany, Savino and her Independent Democratic Caucus, which consistently sided with the Republicans, was the enemy, as we (Occu-Evolve that time) tried to get a fair elections/money out of politics bill passed), all of the assemblers and senators we were targeting were Democrats.

Some of the problems with the WEP include that people on WEP clean city property, including offices, subways, and parks next to workers who are getting good pay and benefits while WEP workers get nothing more than their public assistance money, which is far below the minimum wage.  WEP hurts all workers because it provides free labor and destroys jobs and raises.  It pushes people to take minimum wage jobs.  It increases poverty.  It is humiliating and undignified, and workers are ineligible for Earned Income Tax Credit, Social Security credits, or unemployment.  It is also in violation of federal workfare law, which specifically states that work program hours must be based on the prevailing minimum wage, which New York State does not do.  The bill specifically says “Prohibit WEP in NY State,” removes the work experience program as an option, and defines community service to be work at a location chosen by the person receiving the assistance.  It would end unpaid (slave) labor, keep all other “work activity” options, and give the public assistance recipient a choice in what work activity would best help them personally.  these include subsidized employment (transitional jobs), ubsubsidized employment, on-he-job training, job search and job readiness, community service programs, vocational education, and job skills related directly to employment.  WEP workers are most often women and people of color, victims of age discrimination, lacking a GED, veterans, formerly incarcerated, waiting to get approved for Social Security Disability, and people who have timed off unemployment (emphasis mine).  The idea that people who have timed off unemployment now need basic work experience is utterly absurd and should offend most ethical people.    The bill would give 25,000 people an opportunity to earn a paycheck instead of being forced to work for free (and $45 per month, which is my gross public assistance monthly, prior to penalties (for an alleged overpayment) that reduce my monthly benefit to $41.50).  It would bring more money to low income communities, and the money would go directly to families instead of the job search vendors like FEGS that profit on the backs of the poor.  It would stop the forced (and it is most definitely forced if you live in a homeless shelter–you are not allowed to stay in a homeless shelter without some form of income, even though you don’t pay out of pocket) unpaid labor of WEP.  It would create fewer program sanctions and be a boost for the low wage worker fight.  The bill would replace WEP with subsidized employment, on-the-job training, community service programs, vocational education, job skills training related directly to employment, education directly related to employment, and entrepreneurship opportunities.  This sounds a bit redundant, but this is for clarification purposes.  There are separate bills that would allow 4-year education and allow parents to provide child care themselves until their child is one year old.

We broke into groups of around six people (mine had seven), each of whom had appointments with two legislators.  My group was assigned Joan L. Millman of Brooklyn and Fred W. Thiele, Jr. of Sag Harbor.  We were to meet with their staff, because cold introductions are best with staff, hence why we picked a time when the legislators themselves would not be in.  That way, their staff would introduce them to the concepts from a (hopefully) sympathetic perspective.  My group included Cynthia, Calvin, Sheila (Jennifer’s partner), Jarvis, Penn, and Stacy.  Cynthia was to introduce CVH; Calvin, Shelia, and Penn were to introduce WEP; Jarvis was to discuss the bill, Stacy and I were to share stories, and Jarvis would make the formal asks.

None of the staffers to whom we spoke had ever heard of WEP.  It was completely new to them, although we were informed that different counties know the program under different names.  Still, none of them knew that people on public assistance were subjected to ungodly hours of slave labor.  Although I was the only white person in our group, I was the one who shared my personal story of the slave experience, describing being forced to work for 35 hours a week filing for 32¢ an hour when I first went on public assistance in 2005-6, filing paperwork in the case management files at Project Hospitality, one of the few homeless outreach programs on Staten Island.  I wasn’t there very long before they transferred me.  I was allowed to partake of the soup kitchen food, but I felt kind of weird about it, and they usually served pork, which I was unwilling to eat and still avoid if at all possible.  I toiled away doing filing for Housing Works’ administrative offices, both on 13th Street and 34th Street (or thereabouts) with two different supervisors.  The FEGS people kept saying “If they like you, they’ll hire you.”  They said that they did like me, but as a non-profit, their budget extended only enough to pay the people we already had, but they were happy to have me as long as I was available to them.  None of them even accepted my LinkedIn adds, but everyone I knew in the program had the very same feedback.  They were soft-spoken about it, but extremely brazen in their willingness to accept slave labor at their establishment, because, as non-profit charities, they are used to working with a large contingency of volunteers.  It cannot honestly be described as volunteer work, however, when it is coerced.  My father insisted that he would not help me with my rent unless I did whatever public assistance required me to do to get some supplementary income other than what he sent me.  When I was experiencing penalty weeks on my unemployment insurance, I was doing the homeless shelter intake at Bellevue.  I was told that until the unemployment insurance benefits were actually paid out, I would have to go on public assistance or I would be sanctioned from the shelter system.  This I did, and it took multiple requests and a fair hearing to get taken off public assistance, which also meant paying for my storage out of pocket, although it also meant freedom from WEP and more time to network in lieu of Internet job searches that most “experts” (including FEGS instructors) say are not a good use of your time.  I was on WEP very briefly in February 2013, working in the computer lab at a senior shelter called Moravian Open Door.  I didn’t mind this one.  I wasn’t required to stay for the full time, but usually did because of the free computer access.  The computers at the Manhattan FEGS (I currently go to one in the Bronx, in spite of my recent move to Alphabet City) are very slow, and there are not enough for everyone to be on one for the duration of the session, causing us to waste our time in holding rooms.  I used the printer sometimes, but didn’t abuse this privilege.  The longest document I printed was eight pages (a fresh version of my comic book want list in 8 point font and three columns, since I can still read text that small pretty easily even though I’m getting close to forty).  I paid out of pocket to print a hard copy of Misused Minds, for example.

My story was hardly the most horrific, and I was not the only one in the group who had been on WEP, but they thought the humiliation of someone who had recently earned a master’s degree but had had a medical emergency was significantly poignant.  The staffers for both Millman and Thiele seemed won over.  I was probably the most skeptical in the group that they had been, but I didn’t see a lot of phoniness in their reactions to the program (certainly less than when Zephyr Teachout, for whom I voted for governor in the Democratic primary, campaigned before the Alternative Banking working group of Occupy Wall Street).  Readers of my blog know that I am an activist, and have been making myself aware of the systemic issues that enforce poverty and homelessness, but many people enter the WEP program naïvely.  One horror story involved someone who did janitorial work for the same company for almost two years.  He (if I remember correctly) believed FEGS or whoever was on his case that if he kept at his WEP assignment, he would eventually be hired as a paid worker.  When he was close to his two year anniversary, he called in sick for the very first time.  He was FTC’d (found in “Failure To Comply”) and temporarily expelled from public assistance.  He eventually won his fair hearing, but received a new WEP assignment at a different company, and eventually came to realize that there was, at least now, no realistic hope of being employed by the previous company.  This was one of the worst systemic examples of why the WEP is an inherently bad program, catering to the desires of the wealthy for free labor at the expense of the poor, but there were also stories of cases that didn’t go by the book.  For example, WEP workers were forced to work alongside paid workers doing hard, dangerous physical labor, and were denied the safety gear provided for the paid employees.  Other incidents that were de facto rather than systemic included the paid employees sitting around and forcing the WEP workers to do all the work, and numerous incidents of quid pro quo sexual harassment.

Most people seemed to think that overall the day had gone well, and that each group’s respective staffers were mostly open to the bill, although no one was expecting the bill to get passed in the current cycle, which it didn’t.  Steven Banks has the power to end WEP in New York City, but not throughout the State of New York.  While workfare programs are extremely dubious in a society in which there is not enough work available, the fight is not over, because New York State still does not calculate the hours based on the federal minimum wage as per the workfare law that was passed by Bill Clinton.  Clinton was one of the worst presidents for the poor between Workfare and NAFTA.  That “giant sucking sound of jobs to Mexico,” as Ross Perot described it, was a silly metaphor but absolutely true.  It also resulted in the spread of swine flu because of Smithfield’s unregulated operations there.  Now Obama wants to push the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) through Congress (as well as the Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement), and mainstream liberals wonder why those actively on the left don’t want to vote for the Democratic Party for the sake of winning.  The answer is because we don’t want to vote for what we are against, which would make us culpable for the results.

All Souls Unitarian Church’s soup kitchen social worker John Sheehan was very cynical when I told him about Banks’s plan to phase out WEP, saying that Banks simply realized that they were spending more money on the bureaucracy to administer WEP than they would if they just put the people on public assistance into real paying jobs.  Lynn Lewis at Picture the Homeless said to me that that’s actually a good thing of itself and nothing to be cynical about, and I kind of agree with her.  She has also read Piven and Cloward and she knows that this is all a game in which the rich exploit the poor, and Banks’s solution, as well as his work when he was head of the Legal Aid Society.  He has not said with what he intends to replace WEP to comply with the federal workfare requirement that came in with Clinton. (My right-wing friend once referred to him to me as “your man Clinton,” when I didn’t like Clinton back in the days when I was a Rush Limbaugh fan, and I still don’t know. I believe strongly that my then-like of Limbaugh was rooted in my dislike of Clinton, because I started disliking Limbaugh pretty much as soon as Bush got elected.)  I may be among the first to know this.  My case went into conciliation because the staff misplaced the paperwork from Picture the Homeless requesting that I be excused from the Back to Work Program last Friday in order to meet with Lorraine Stevens of the Department of Homeless Services.  Because my case is in conciliation, I won’t need another of these notes for the meeting with Steven Banks a week from today, for which I have already attended the preparatory session.  It would be great if I could be paid by the government to work at Picture the Homeless.  They need grants in order to pay staff and don’t currently have anything for which they can hire me (I also don’t want to push Sam, whose job description best matches my skill set, out of his job, although I would love to be considered for it were he to want to move on), but that would be my first choice of a non-profit organization for me to do work, and the staff already likes me.

I have no issues with working.  I have issues with working for free for a company or organization that I have not chosen myself.  I have issues with working for a low wage when I need a place to live and have student loans to pay.  I have issues with working in ways that will exacerbate my medical condition.  I have no issue with working.  Some might consider writing this blog work.  It certainly takes quite a bit of time and mental effort to do.  I was a brainiac in school and went to college and graduate school expecting any job put before me to be about mental effort, but I graduated into an economy with few jobs.  It has never been my choice to experience long periods of unemployment.  that choice was thrust upon me by the ruling class, and it did not come allied with a perception of greatness on their part.  That pretty much disappeared after I graduated with an undergraduate degree.  Once that was done, the ruling class has seen me as an unruly thorn in their side (much as I loathe the use of such clichés) if they have seen me at all.  Perhaps if I had been treated properly by the ruling class once I completed my degrees, they would still have me as one of their useful idiot “dittoheads.”

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3 Comments
  1. Madie Hodges permalink

    Hey! I have a question about your blog. Could you please email me when you get a chance? Thanks!

  2. Tori G. permalink

    Thank you for your words. This is my current lived experience… Educated to the hilt (working on a PhD) but am consistently told I am “overqualified” at the close of interviews – as if I am a different individual than the one the CV represents… Beyond humiliating…

    • I’m now in a temp job where I make $11 an hour–the same amount above minimum wage I made as an undergraduate. What is my $65,000 in student loan debt for?

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