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All Work and No Pay

In January 1998 Ann-Marie Young arrived for her 10 a.m. appointment with a caseworker at the state Department of Children and Families office in Fort Lauderdale at 8 a.m. Because she was eight months pregnant and had felt sharp pains earlier that morning, she was hoping to bump up her appointment so that she could go to see her doctor as soon as possible. But Young says the receptionist scolded her for arriving two hours early, then told her to sit and wait. Seven hours later at about 3 p.m., while still waiting to meet with her caseworker, Young went into labor. "Then everybody wanted to help me," she says.

Help is something of which Young has received little in the last two years. A former welfare recipient who now participates in the state's WAGES (Work and Gain Economic Self-Sufficiency) program, the single mother is supposed to be supplied with job training and support services. But thus far she's come up against a system that has kept her from finding work while trying to take care of four children. Her experience at the DCF office 19 months ago was just the beginning of a nightmarish odyssey that, as others attest, is not unique.

Sitting in the cozy living room of her Lauderhill bungalow, Young tells her kids to keep the noise down. Her one-year-old, Malcolm, sits on her lap while the others -- ages four, six, and eight -- huddle around the TV, gleefully playing a video game. The 25-year-old Young moved to Florida from Jamaica in 1983, and until the age of 16, she lived a decent life with her aunt and uncle. "When they passed away, it all fell apart," she says. That same year she became pregnant with her first child by one man, then had three more kids with another. She dropped out of school, but with the help of her grandparents, who also live in Lauderhill, she's been able to keep her head above water -- barely.

When Young joined the WAGES program two years ago, she was hopeful. "I just want[ed] to work and do my own thing," she explains. WAGES was set up in 1996, shortly after state and federal welfare-reform bills were signed into laws demanding that welfare recipients get off the rolls and find jobs -- a process known as "workfare." WAGES is a transitional program that offers these people support services, such as job training, self-improvement classes, and childcare.

In Young's case the problems began with Parent Information Resource Center (PIRC), which was hired by Broward County in 1996 as the case-management provider for WAGES programs in the county. Young began meeting with a PIRC caseworker in 1998, when she was unemployed and seeking childcare. Family members were able to look after her kids nights and weekends, but she needed full-time subsidized daycare in order to find work.

She finally found a job, with a temp agency, last December. Because WAGES is a transitional program, those who find full-time work and thus are no longer in training, report to the DCF, not WAGES, for support services. But Young says she was told by the DCF she was not eligible for childcare. Why? Because her PIRC caseworker had told the DCF to "sanction" the single mother. Young claims the sanctioning process was never explained by the PIRC caseworker (who no longer works for the agency) despite persistent questions. Lisa Margulis, director of social services at the privately run Cooperative Feeding Program in Fort Lauderdale, says that, in Young's case, sanctioning shouldn't have been an issue. "She wasn't even getting benefits [to begin with]," she explains, adding that Young had yet to reopen a case with the DCF. "You can't sanction someone who doesn't have a case."

Despite numerous phone calls, PIRC officials refused to comment for this article, and John Heckathorne, WAGES specialist at the DCF, said he could not find the reason for the sanction in Young's case file. PIRC's contract with the county expired in June, and Lockheed-Martin has been serving as WAGES case-management provider since July. The decision to go with a new provider was based solely on bids, according to Khalil Zeinieh, WAGES director for Broward.

But back in December, Young was in a tough spot -- one that can be described only as Kafkaesque. She was told the sanction would be lifted only after she attended ten days' worth of WAGES seminars. Because she still needed someone to look after her kids, Young had to drop the temp job, and she wasn't able to begin attending "Positive Image," a self-improvement seminar, until April. She claims she was told to attend the seminar for five days, then report to her PIRC caseworker for reassignment. But when she looked for the caseworker, "she was on vacation," Young says, gone for two weeks. After the caseworker returned, she yelled at Young for not finishing the seminar, then told her she'd have to start all over again.

Reluctantly Young complied, beginning a ten-day training stint at the switchboard at WAGES' Jobs and Benefits office in Fort Lauderdale in June. But again childcare became a problem. Young's shift ran from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., but her caseworker, Young says, assigned subsidized childcare from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. This meant that Young, who doesn't own a car, had plenty of time to get on a bus and drop her kids at the daycare center before reporting to work in the morning. But she wasn't able to pick them up on time at the end of the day. When she pointed out this dilemma to her caseworker, she was told the childcare schedule would be revised accordingly.

But it never was. At the end of one week, Young was charged about $200 worth of late fees by the daycare center and told she couldn't bring her kids back until the fees were paid. Unable to pay, Young had to discontinue her training at WAGES, and the sanction against her remains in place.

As ridiculous as this all sounds, Young is not alone. Other single mothers echo her complaints. LaTonya Burgess, age 25, believes that the primary problem with the WAGES program is childcare. "If you need daycare, you can't get it unless you have a job," says Burgess, who has three kids -- ages one, three, and five. Bridgette Harden, age 29, concurs. "While you're looking for a job, where are your children supposed to be?" Like Young, Harden was offered training at the Jobs and Benefits switchboard but had to pass up the opportunity. "They said they'll only take care of two of my four children," she says. When she asked the childcare provider, Family Central, why it would take only two kids, she was told that her two oldest, ages nine and ten, "were old enough to stay home." Asked about the incident, Barbara Weinstein, president and CEO of Family Central, said that all children of WAGES participants are provided for. She then said she doubted the incident ever took place.

But even those who report that WAGES is doing fine overall see signs of discontent. Every month, Florida Atlantic University issues an evaluation of the program, and Phil Rokicki, executive director of the Florida Institute For Career and Employment Training at FAU, acknowledges numerous complaints about WAGES. In one section of a recent report, comments made by some of the program's more than 3000 participants include words such as rude, nasty, degrading, and unprofessional in referring to trainers and caseworkers, who include employees at the DCF. Nancy Thomas was assigned to a WAGES self-help seminar where, she told New Times, "[The instructors] got in our face and told us not to look at them. When we turned away, they'd yell at us to look at them." Thomas could barely conceal her vitriol. "We were treated like dirt," she said. After one eight-hour session of tough-love-style self-help, Thomas had had enough. She didn't return to the seminar.

Zeinieh brushes off the complaints as "isolated incidents." "The nature of the program itself fosters complaints," he explains. Maybe so, but Aimee Lurkins, program administrator for economic self-sufficiency services at the DCF, acknowledges the complaints. "We have addressed the problem with our staff," she says, adding that the DCF is now working with FAU to develop a training program that will improve services for WAGES participants.

Ann-Marie Young, however, has all but given up on WAGES. She says she'll continue to get by with financial assistance from one of the fathers of her children and, if Lockheed-Martin is so inclined, accept help when it's offered. "All I want is childcare," she stresses. "I don't need cash assistance." Sitting amid her rambunctious kids, she plots her next course of action. School starts for three of her kids next week, which means she'll have to look for daycare only for her one-year-old, Malcolm. Then perhaps she'll be able to look for a job. In the meantime she's attending night school for her GED. "I finish in a month," she says, raising her voice above the din of her children. Then she smiles, lifts Malcolm from her lap into her arms, and adds, "They're killing me with tests."

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Elbert Ventura

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