homeless job program: sub-minimum wage, up to 70 hours weekly FWD

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Fri, 5 Jun 1998 22:07:07 -0700 (PDT)

FWD  Columbus Dispatch - 4 Jun 1998

Summary: The agency can pay the men less than minimum wage under a federal
law that grants exemptions for "sheltered workshops,'' which allow people
with disabilities to work in a supervised setting. They don't have to pay
you as much money and punish you with the worst jobs when you get back,''
he said.


     By Alice Thomas - Columbus Dispatch Staff Reporter

A Volunteers of America program that seeks to rehabilitate alcoholic
homeless men by offering them a job has them working up to 70 hours a week
for as little as $2.58 an hour but doesn't provide counseling.

Some charge that its success rate is dismal and that it does more to make
money for the agency than to help the homeless.

Jeffrey Brasie, the agency's director, admits that the program "doesn't
give solutions'' and says he wants to improve it, including adding

"It's cheap labor,'' said Jerry Clemons, a 42-year-old homeless man who was
enrolled in the program on and off for four years. "They will work you to
death. The least hours I got was 55 -- and a lot of guys work 70 to 80
hours a week.''

Clemons, who is battling alcoholism, said he was kicked out of the program
last week when he refused to take a drug test. While there, he said, he
never went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting or any other support group or
talked to a counselor.

A directory of social services in Franklin County offers this description
of the Volunteers of America program: "provides transitional residential
services, counseling, employment, etc.'' While work is mandatory,
counseling is not. The men are referred to group meetings, but attendance
is optional. "There is no program there,'' said a former employee who
didn't want to be identified.

"Their whole goal is to keep the (drop) boxes empty because that's how they
make money. They don't even give you a day off. Those men were out there on
Christmas Day emptying those boxes,'' the former employee said, referring
to the agency's donation receptacles throughout Franklin County. While some
men empty the boxes, others work in Volunteers of America thrift stores,
tagging or sorting merchandise, or in other positions at the agency, such
as driving its trucks or working in the kitchen, which is what Clemons did.

The men in the work program, which has up to 50 participants, sleep on the
second floor of the Volunteers' building at 377 W. Broad St. They are given
free clothing and meals, but the agency charges them rent of $12 a day.
Clemons said the rent -- about $360 a month -- is excessive for the
dorm-style lodging but is an incentive to work overtime since most of the
men's pay goes toward rent.

The agency can pay the men less than minimum wage under a federal law that
grants exemptions for "sheltered workshops,'' which allow people with
disabilities to work in a supervised setting. The theory behind the
minimum-wage exception is that a disabled employee is not as productive as
a nondisabled one, and the hourly wage paid is calculated by the workshop,
which observes the productivity of its employees, said Ed Hall, a wage
analyst for the U.S. Department of Labor in Chicago.

Hall said the Volunteers of America operation has been a registered shelter
workshop for at least 12 years. When asked if 60-hour workweeks are unusual
for employees considered to be disabled, Hall said yes. "Normally,
individuals in this program work 20 to 30 hours a week,'' he said of
sheltered workshops. "That's an average. Many of them work much less.''

Brasie said the pay ranges from $2.58 to $5.50 an hour. He stressed that
the program is voluntary. "We seem to have gentlemen who come to us, and
gentlemen who leave us. They have every right to,'' he said. "We don't
force them to come here.'' Nationally, Volunteers of America bills itself
as one of the "largest and most comprehensive'' social-service agencies,
with operations in 220 cities and towns in 37 states. Services vary from
place to place; in Columbus, a chief focus is homeless people.

Clemons said he started at $2.58 an hour and worked up to $4.50 but was
dropped to his starting rate when he relapsed and was banned for three days
because of drinking. "They love it when you do that. They don't have to pay
you as much money and punish you with the worst jobs when you get back,''
he said. Once a man is banned from the work program, he can come back after
three days. But -- until the policy was changed yesterday after a
reporter's questioning -- men were banned from the emergency shelter for 30
days: If you wanted to stay at the Volunteers' shelter, you had to work.

Brasie, who has been at the agency for seven months, comes from a
background in health care and said he plans to use his experience to bring
counseling into the program, which he wants to make mandatory. He aims to
strengthen the emphasis on recovery. "I've had residents come to me and
say, 'Jeff, we're not winning. We're just working.' And I know I can
provide the leadership skills to get that'' turned around, Brasie said.
Clemons and others said some men stay in the program for years, making it
their home.

"I don't feel comfortable with that,'' Brasie said, adding he wants to
introduce time limits to the work program. The Salvation Army also operates
a work program but maintains a six-month limit, said Dan Ingram, director
of operations. The program requires counseling -- the Salvation Army has
four certified counselors on site -- as well as attendance at two group
meetings a week, religious services and work.

Men don't get paid wages but do get a stipend of $7 to $20 a week. Work is
limited to 40 hours a week. But the Salvation Army doesn't charge rent. It
feeds and clothes the men, takes them on field trips and plans other
activities for them. Donovan Myers, 31, is ready to graduate from the
Salvation Army program. He soon will move out and has a factory job waiting
for him. "The work therapy got me back in the working mode,'' Myers said.
"What I benefit from, among other things, is spirituality, self-esteem.''


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