Parks Opportunity Program

by Anne Schwartz, Apr 20, 2004

For six months in 2003, Florence Lugo cleaned parks in Lower Manhattan while participating in the Parks Opportunity Program, a paid welfare-to-work program that has trained thousands of welfare recipients, mostly women, over the past three years. "The program helped motivate me to get off welfare and look forward to the future of having a permanent job," she said. But even though she received excellent evaluations, she said, so far she has been unable to find long-term work.

Lugo's experience was typical of the participants surveyed in a study of the program conducted by Community Voices Heard, an organization of low-income people. The group campaigned to change the city's Work Experience Program, which required welfare recipients to do unpaid work in exchange for welfare benefits, into the paid Parks Opportunity Program, which is the largest public transitional employment program in the country.

Most of the program participants maintain and clean the parks, although a small percentage work at playgrounds and recreation centers, in security, or doing clerical tasks. The program pays participants for four days of work and one day of job search assistance and training provided by the parks department. Workers in the first two phases of the program earned from $9.38 to $12.50 an hour for jobs that lasted up to 11-1/2 months, and were members of District Council 37, which represents park workers. In the current phase of the program, positions last six months, pay $7.50 an hour and no longer have union status.

The study, Wages Work!, questioned 101 out of a random sample of 200 people who participated in the first phase of the program in 2001. It found that receiving a paycheck changed their feelings about work. Most survey respondents said they enjoyed their work, developed confidence, and were motivated to find a full-time job. Almost 93 percent said they would have liked to continue in a permanent job in the parks. But the program was less successful in helping participants make the leap to the workforce. Only 15.5 percent had gotten permanent jobs, and only 22 percent had held at least one job since working in the parks.

The study found that the training and education offered to participants in addition to the experience gained on the job was limited -- mostly focused on job readiness and search skills like good work habits, interviewing, and appropriate dress. Many participants were not offered the opportunity for more specific training, like civil service exam preparation and commercial driver's license training. More than 90 percent of survey respondents said that job search assistance could have been improved.

Because the fulltime staff of the parks department has continued to decrease, there are few jobs available using the skills participants are learning on the job. The report recommended that the transitional program offer a variety of positions in different city agencies and non-profits, and that it provide more education, including toward a high school equivalency diploma, as well as more specialized skills training. It also concluded that the program needed to offer more outside supports, like childcare, transportation money, and helping participants keep benefits like food stamps and health insurance to bridge the gap between the program's wages and what it really costs to make ends meet.

Bob Garafola, Deputy Commissioner for Management and Budget at the Department of Parks and Recreation, said that the department now offers many more training opportunities and internships including in building maintenance, computers, and even phlebotomy -- than it did when the program first started. The department is also looking to develop new courses, like a certified nursing assistance program in connection with Lehman College. He said that job placements have tripled since last year, with 1000 participants getting jobs since July 2003.

Aside from its goal of helping people off welfare and into long-term jobs, the Parks Opportunity Program has been essential for maintaining the city's 28,000 acres of parkland. As the parks fulltime staff has declined -- from 5,400 in 1980 to around 1,900 in the next year's proposed budget -- workers in the job training program are doing the bulk of the maintenance in the parks. According to figures from the Independent Budget Office cited in the study, in fiscal year 2004 there were 2,496 participants in the current transitional program, as well as 446 Work Experience Program workers, but just 850 fulltime parks employees assigned to park maintenance. The transitional workers are paid through the Human Resources Administration, using federal and state funding.

"If the program is ended, the parks department could not function," said Christian DiPalermo, Executive Director of New Yorkers for Parks, the parks advocacy group. But his group sees the reliance on temporary workers paid by funding outside the parks department budget as "a way that the city has been able to not invest in parks." He said, "It's a Band-Aid for the parks department, because what's underneath the Band-Aid is the lack of full-time employees."

DiPalermo also said, "It's very difficult to manage people who come in every two weeks and stay at most six months," although he thinks the department does an admirable job. "Does that model work well in the private sector? I would tend to think not."

However, Deputy Commissioner Garafola noted that the parks department has a tradition of seasonal jobs and has a lot of experience managing short-term workers. "Everyone always wants more fulltime staff," he said. "You take the resources you get and try to make the most of it, and I think we've been pretty successful in doing that."