For the past two years, George Priest has done part-time work for the finance division of the county Department of Public and Social Services, researching welfare-fraud cases on microfiche. It's the kind of desk job that would be the envy of many a welfare recipient who, faced with tough new welfare laws that mandate employment, is struggling to re-enter the working world.

The rub is, Priest is that unemployed welfare recipient. He draws a general-relief grant of $212 per month, and must work to earn it through the county's longstanding workfare program. What bothers Priest is not the work, but the fact that the county doesn't recognize him as being a worker at all; though he has been doing microfilm research at DPSS for several years now, he is routinely passed over for paid positions when they become available. “I've [had] false hopes of being hired for years,” says Priest, one of 25,000 workers in the county program. “Workfare is not the solution. The work has to pay if people are ever going to really change their situation.”

Tired of being a “phantom worker,” the 52-year-old Navy veteran last year joined the Workfare Workers Organizing Committee, an activist group of 8,000 workfare participants and the first sizable Southern California campaign for ACORN, a national organization focused on the rights of low-income people, which launched a Los Angeles chapter in 1995. Assisting the WWOC is Citizens for Workfare Justice (CWJ) – a support group for the workers, made up of a coalition of labor groups, religious leaders, lawyers and community groups. These activists plan to highlight what thay see as the increasingly exploitative nature of workfare with the release this week of a field study titled “When Work Doesn't Pay: Workfare in Los Angeles County,” based on interviews conducted last November with more than 75 workfare workers and their supervisors at sites countywide. The group says that workfare workers, single adults who are among society's poorest members, are exploited on several levels because they are mandated to work and thus have no rights of refusal and no bargaining power. Amy Schur of ACORN says that the study was conducted to educate a public that thinks welfare recipients are getting a work-free ride. “We're saying, if you're in workfare and you have no benefits, no guarantees, then you're working like illegal immigrants,” says Schur. “It's a legalized system of peonage.”

The goal of reformers is to first establish basic worker rights highlighted in the field study – rights such as work-safety education. The study found that many workfare workers were doing hazardous jobs such as picking up hypodermic needles in MacArthur Park, or mixing toxic cleaning chemicals at County-USC Hospital, without adequate protection. Abdullah Muhammad, a general-relief recipient and newly elected chairman of ACORN's Workfare Workers' Committee, says that he and others are not fighting for wages so much as making an assertion that what they do has value. “It's the indignity of the whole thing,” says Muhammad, 50, a former welder who now does maintenance work at the H. Claude Hudson Comprehensive Health Center. “We get no benefits, no health care. You're considered a lower person because you've done workfare.”

In addition, the CWJ study raises questions about the basic willingness of the county welfare system to move people off the rolls and into viable employment. One survey finding was that supervisors in public-sector sites, such as school campuses, wanted to hire competent workfare workers full-time, but were told by higher-ups they could not. Rather than encourage transition into the job market, the study found that workfare employers – or sponsors, as they are called – are often more interested in maintaining what is essentially a free pool of labor. Many sites surveyed rely almost exclusively on workfare workers to operate; at other sites, workfare workers routinely pick up the slack left by paid positions that have been vacated or eliminated. At County-USC Hospital, for example, where there has been a hiring freeze for the past three years, workfare workers account for between 60 and 100 positions each day. An Inglewood school that once had six staff positions is down to two, with the rest filled by workfare; the Museum of Natural History now relies on six workfare people on any given day to load and unload exhibits.

Reform proponents maintain that workfare as it currently exists thus discourages hiring and actually cuts down on the number of decent-paying, sometimes unionized jobs by replacing them with workfare slots – which pits welfare recipients against unions and runs counter to workfare's own stated goal of steering the poor into gainful employment. “People end up in a form of involuntary servititude,” says Jim Lafferty, executive director of the L.A. chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. “Nobody argues against work, but the work should lead somewhere. [Workfare] could work, but it doesn't because it's more politically expedient for it not to. The county is saying, 'This is not work. This is what they do for their welfare check.' This is just not fair. Workfare keeps people in an endless cycle of poverty, in a job that someone else was doing for $15 an hour that they're doing for nothing.”

County officials respond that workfare, which began in the 1940s, was designed more as a self-esteem booster than as a segue into full-time work. “Theoretically, GR workers are working off their debt to the county,” says Sandra Semtner, a division chief with the Department of Public Social Services (DPSS). “The other purpose is to provide working-world experience. It's very important for unemployed people to keep in the flow of work, to keep them exposed to productive activity.”

ACORN began agitating for changes in workfare early last year, staging a series of rallies at workfare sites that culminated in a “Labor Day Picnic” in which WWOC members took over a floor at the DPSS headquarters. By June, agency officials agreed to try and hash out new, worker-friendlier language in the contract drawn between DPSS and its workfare sponsors. Some of the agreed-upon changes include sponsors filing specific job descriptions, the county assessing worker skills more closely, and workers being allowed to ask for letters of recommendation. But the chief dispute – whether workfare is real work or a time-killer until real work comes along – remains in contention.

Activists at CWJ say time is of the essence for workfare reform. With the launch last month of Calworks, the state's retooled version of AFDC, those receiving federal public assistance must either find work in the next two years or do “community service” for their grants – largely workfare – and a lot more of it: 32 hours per week versus a general-relief recipient's average of 40 hours per month. Thus a whole new population of workfare workers, estimated by CWJ at approximately 100,000 next year, will dramatically expand the program. Reform advocates want to assert appropriate work rules, as well as ensure that any increase in federal spending on Calworks goes toward job creation and not simply toward expanding workfare. Semtner at DPSS says a slew of new, intense programs aimed at job acquisition – resume writing, interview techniques, motivation seminars – will get under way this month. “We're putting a lot of energy into getting this going,” says Semtner. “We know that getting a job can be a job in itself.”

In the meantime, Schur is hoping that the Workfare Workers' Committee will ultimately become a full-fledged union; she and other CWJ members boast support from SEIU Local 660, the county employees' union. Taking a cue from the Bus Rider's Union, Citizens for Workfare Justice is looking at least to infuse its largely poor and minority constituency with a sense of fight-back power and, in time, real political muscle. “We can't fool ourselves into believing that we can sign a piece of paper and get what we want,” says ACORN organizer John Jackson. “We have to build a movement. We have to shake the very ground the county stands on.”

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.