A bill pending in the state Senate would weaken a key underpinning of welfare reform — the Work Experience Program, or WEP.  This is a one-house measure for now, and it’s sponsored by a member of the democratic minority, to boot.  But many of Albany’s worst ideas have been born as one-house minority bills, so this one bears watching.

Some background is in order: Able-bodied welfare recipients who don’t find a job can be assigned to government-subsidized WEP employment, which helps teach the importance of basic work skills such as showing up on time, dressing appropriately, respecting supervisors and other workers, receiving training and building the beginnings of a labor market history or resume. New York City, for example, uses WEP assignees to clean and take care of parks and recreational facilities among other placements.

The New York City Human Resources Administration and many other local districts appropriately view WEP as key to their efforts to engage able bodied adults and understand the importance of personal responsibility as a condition of receiving welfare.

But while WEP involves (or is supposed to involve) real work, it is not classified as “employment” in the same sense as a non-subsidized job in the open-market.  WEP is governed by basic health and safety workplace regulations.  The number of weekly hours a recipient must participate cannot exceed the value of their welfare grant and food stamp benefits divided by the applicable minimum wage (now $7.25 hourly). Their compensation for those hours is the welfare grant itself, not a wage.

This is consistent with the definition of WEP by three federal agencies, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Labor and the Internal Revenue Service. Federal TANF regulations clearly stipulate “that work experience participants continue to receive their TANF grants and that they do not receive wages or compensation by virtue of participating in the activity.”

The IRS clarifies this further by disallowing income received from WEP as earnings for the purposes of qualifying for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).

However, Senator Daniel Squadron, D-Brooklyn, wants to change those rules through state legislation by reclassifying WEP hours as employment rather than training.

The proposed change would compromise the ability to use WEP as a required assignment and reduce the ability of local welfare agencies to recover benefits from recipients, as allowed currently. Squadron’s bill, by saying that WEP training is the same as employment, would subtract out the dollar value of WEP hours from what could be recovered.

Not only would S.102 have a negative monetary effect on overstretched local districts, it would set a precedent for the first time that WEP is employment, and open a Pandora’s Box of litigation over hours, wages, and the relationship between WEP and the other work activities in which recipients are required by federal law to participate as a condition of receiving welfare benefits.

It would eviscerate the importance of WEP as a legitimate work preparation activity for many unskilled individuals receiving TANF and undo many of the fundamental welfare to work requirements of TANF. Not very surprising, given that Senator Squadron, formerly chair and now ranking member of the Senate Social Services Committee, has consistently been a vocal critic of work focused welfare reform.

Squadron’s bill, which currently lacks an Assembly counterpart, moved in March from Social Services to the Rules Committee.

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