The Bush proposals for welfare reauthorization suggest that welfare payments to individuals participating in work experience or community service are not considered compensation for work performed and do not entitle any
individual to a salary or to benefits provided under any other provision of law.
The clear implication of the President’s statement is that millions of welfare recipients in work programs would be denied the most fundamental workplace protections – the right to earn at least the minimum wage, the right to a safe and healthy work place, the right to work without fear of discrimination or retaliation, the right to organize into a union to win a voice at work. Virtually every American worker enjoys these basic rights.
Individuals in work programs should not be denied them, simply because they are working as a condition of collecting benefits. Without the protection of the Fair Labor Standards Act, welfare recipients will become exploitable cheap labor for unscrupulous employers and will continue to be caught in the revolving door of poverty.
Without the protection of OHSA, welfare participants run the risk of increased workplace injury. They would be denied health and safety training, right to know coverage and other protections that other workers enjoy.
Without the protection of anti-discrimination laws, welfare participants will be extremely reluctant to speak up against their employers for complaints such as sexual harassment – afraid to take the chance that they will lose the only safety net they have left.
In addition to ensuring basic workplace protections for individuals in work programs, we must also guard against the erosion of protections for existing employees. Absent strong anti-displacement protections, employers are free to terminate existing employees at well and replace them with low-paid
participants in work programs, thus cutting costs, reducing hours or, in some instances, breaking strikes and other job actions.
All workers deserve the full protection of the law. We cannot abide using public funds to create millions of second-class workers.
Moving individuals from welfare into work is just one of the goals of welfare reform. Other overriding goals include reducing poverty and building self-sufficiency. We cannot achieve those goals unless we make work pay, and we will not do that without extending full workforce protections to individuals who are in work programs.
Real welfare reform must assure that those on public assistance get the full protection of our nation’s labor, health and safety and anti-discrimination laws. Real welfare reform must not take job opportunities away from people who already have them.
Real jobs must be created that pay workers enough to raise a family and lift them out of poverty. We firmly believe that those in workfare or community service programs are real workers entitled to the same rights and opportunity as other workers.
Linda Chavez-Thompson is the executive vice president of the 13 million-member AFL-CIO. This statement is reprinted from www.aflcio.org.