By HEATHER NELLIS
Recorder News Staff
When Fort Plain agreed to participate as a site sponsor for the Montgomery County Department of Social Services' work employment program, one welfare recipient apparently decided she would rather close her case than rake leaves and have Mayor Guy Barton as her boss.
"She showed up one day, and raking leaves must have been too much, because she didn't come back," Barton said.
It's one desired impact of the reignited program that kicked off in the city of Amsterdam in July, said department Commissioner Michael McMahon. It was expanded this fall to include the villages of Hagaman, Fort Plain, St. Johnsville and Fonda, which signed on to take advantage of the labor from eligible welfare recipients.
"Suddenly, the 'help wanted' sign at Target must have been looking really good," McMahon said.
It's what four other welfare recipients must have been thinking, too. When 20 eligible candidates were lined up to work in the city, four of them stood up and said they wanted to close their cases. Two others assigned to provide janitorial support at the Amsterdam Police Department walked away after a day of work.
"It tells me people are taking us for a ride. How many more are there like that?" McMahon asked.
The program is designed to assist recipients of Safety Net and Temporary Assistance of Needy Families through partnerships with community agencies. It's aimed give them skills and work histories that would make them more marketable and employable.
Most of the opportunities are currently limited to seasonal physical labor, though officials hope to expand the program in the near future to include basic clerical work.
Loss of assistance is a repercussion if people decline to participate.
When asked if program participants get paid, McMahon said, "Yeah, they get paid. It's called public assistance, and it's a hard sell when someone's been getting paid free money to sit at home for years."
But for those who embrace the opportunity, it's provided invaluable experience, said Amsterdam Police Chief Greg Culick, a 20-year investigator with the social service department's fraud unit.
"We've had a lot of success with it," Culick said. "One person was assigned a painting project, and when he finished, he was able to step back and appreciate the work he did. Now, I can give him a reference and I can tell employers he dug his heels in and worked hard."
Of Fort Plain's other assigned "employee," Barton said there was a four-day stretch where he did not show up for work. But after Barton reached out to him, he showed up to work Wednesday on time at 6:15 a.m.
"I want to give the program a chance to work," Barton said. "It's why I signed on."
The program's had humble beginnings, encumbered by the department's personnel shortages, legal tape, necessary sensitivity to municipal labor agreements, clients' transportation issues, language barriers, and criminal histories.
McMahon said it will take patience from the municipalities while the department gets the program off the ground for more clients to participate.
The county's unemployment rate has climbed to 10 percent, which McMahon said equates to 2,500 people, not to mention people who are no longer looking for work, and the under-employed, who McMahon identified as part-time employees.
"Are there challenges with this program? Yes. But can we afford to stand still? What we do here is charity, and we can continue just throw a lot of money at it, or we can collaborate with the community and businesses. We just have to be patient and communicate to keep it viable."