September 9, 1997 in Nation/World

Should ‘Workfare’ Be Exempt From Labor Law? Republicans Say White House Is Undermining Welfare Reform

Laura Meckler Associated Press
 

The mantra of welfare reform is work. But do welfare recipients in job-training slots deserve the same benefits and rights as other workers?

It’s a debate that will stretch into the fall as the Clinton administration argues that work is work, while states and Republicans warn that such blanket protections could be tremendously costly.

As the rhetoric heats up, some worry the matter will become too politicized to find an acceptable compromise.

There’s no question that a welfare recipient who gets hired for a regular private sector job is entitled to all labor protections.

At issue is work either created by the government for those who cannot find work on their own, or special so-called “workfare” slots offered by community service groups and private employers for people still collecting welfare.

Congressional Republicans promise they will continue their fight to exempt this “workfare” from a host of labor laws, a battle they lost over the summer.

The Clinton administration touched off the debate in the spring by ruling that these workers are covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act, entitling them to the minimum wage and job-safety protections.

That suggested the full complement of labor laws would apply as well, including everything from anti-discrimination laws to family and medical leave. It also would include tax laws, requiring employers to pay into the Social Security system.

Republicans want to pass legislation overturning the Labor Department’s ruling, hoping governors will persuade President Clinton to sign it. Until then, the Labor ruling stands.

Governors and their Capitol Hill allies argue that the ruling will ultimately hurt welfare recipients.

They say states will be unable to afford enough workfare slots, and recipients will not have the chance to learn job skills, leaving them unprepared when their welfare runs out.

“The Clinton administration, working with the unions and the bureaucrats, is trying to undermine and destroy welfare reform,” House Speaker Newt Gingrich said last month.

He promised to make the dispute “a major part” of the fall legislative agenda.

The Clinton administration and its allies respond that treating people on welfare like other workers is a matter of simple fairness.

“We aren’t asking for any special rights,” said Diane Garcia of Racine, Wis., a former welfare recipient who helped lead a Monday rally on Capitol Hill. “Moving into a work situation has to be a way out of humiliation - not an expanded version of it.”

The debate began with whether people on welfare should be paid the minimum wage, but there is little dispute on that point now. After resisting, House leaders accepted the administration’s ruling that states must pay those in workfare at least $5.15 per hour, though they may include the value of cash welfare and food stamps when calculating their “wages.”

Now, congressional Republicans are trying to frame the debate around other, less popular implications of calling workfare work.

They suggest workfare workers might have to be paid the much higher prevailing wage for some jobs. And they argue that private employers won’t hire welfare recipients with few skills or experience if they have to follow a lot of labor laws.

States also worry they’ll have to pay Social Security and unemployment compensation taxes and reconfigure their systems to issue a paycheck rather than a benefit check.

The administration is willing to consider exempting workfare from tax laws, said Bruce Reed, Clinton’s top domestic policy aide. These are “legitimate concerns,” Reed said, but they are “not what conservative Republicans are beating the drums about right now.”

Indeed, the debate shows a philosophical divide.

“We believe that people in work programs should be treated with the same respect as other workers,” Reed said.

But state and congressional Republicans argue that workfare jobs are likely to go to those least capable.

Saying they are dealing with people with little education, little experience and often a bad attitude toward work, states argue they are training people for work rather than requiring them to work.

But while Gingrich and others say they are fighting for the states, their agendas aren’t identical to those of the governors, who are not looking for a political battle.

“Gingrich’s comments have made the issue more visible and more political, which may polarize it and make it difficult to find a reasonable compromise,” said Susan Golonka, who handles welfare issues for the National Governors’ Association. “He sort of upped the ante.”

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Labor protection

Some labor protections that may apply to welfare recipients:

Minimum wage. The Labor Department ruled that workfare participants must be paid the minimum wage, $5.15 per hour, though states may include the value of cash welfare and food stamps in calculating payments.

Tax law. States worry they will have to pay Social Security and unemployment compensation taxes on behalf of workfare participants. Taxes could be taken out of the participants’ benefit checks, as well.

Workplace protections. The Labor ruling assures that workfare participants are protected under safety, civil rights and other workplace protection laws.

Other labor laws. Various parties suggest the application of other labor laws. For instance, Republicans warn that states might have to pay the prevailing wage for certain jobs. Democrats are more likely to point to the family and medical leave act, which guarantees time off to care for a sick family member.


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