Work Programs as Part of a Local Welfare Program – Are They Worth the Work?

As the economy continues to struggle, more and more people are finding it necessary to apply for local welfare assistance. This means that local assistance budgets are straining under the ever increasing case load of eligible applicants. Work programs for those receiving town assistance may be an effective way to recoup some of the expenses of the welfare program and allow assisted persons to learn job skills that may help them return to an income status and provide for themselves. If administered carefully, a work program can be a win-win proposition for the town.

Q. What is a work program and how can we establish one?

A. A work program, authorized by RSA 165:31 as part of a municipal welfare program, puts assisted persons to work for the town, allowing the town to recoup some of the financial assistance given through requests for welfare assistance. In order to have a work program, the governing body must include the program within its welfare guidelines by a vote of the governing body at any of its public meetings. Remember, while the names of recipients of local welfare are confidential, the guidelines are not confidential, and changes should be made at public meetings. The guidelines should be made available to both applicants for assistance as well as to the general public.

Q. Can an assisted person be required to participate in the work program?

A. Yes, if there is an available job that is within the capacity of the assisted person, and the person does not have a physical or mental disability and is not a single parent with children under the age of five, he or she may be required to participate in a work program. RSA 165:31. Participation in a work program should not unduly interfere with the time necessary for the assisted person to conduct a work search and for job interviews. One of the goals of local welfare assistance is to have the assisted person return to an income status that is adequate to meet his or her own needs, so that local assistance is no longer needed. Therefore, allowing adequate time for a job search is important. Note, however, that if a town department is covered by a union contract, the contract should first be reviewed to determine whether persons assigned to the work program may work in that department.

Q. Does the assisted person get a paycheck that must be turned over to the town, or are they paid in some other way?

A. No, the person does not receive a paycheck, or cash, from the town. Instead, the amount earned—hours worked times rate of pay—is credited against the amount of assistance the town has given. This also reduces the amount the assisted person will be asked to reimburse the town for the aid received pursuant to RSA 165:20-b or to satisfy a lien recorded pursuant to RSA 165:28.

Q. How do we determine the rate of pay?

A. The town must credit the hours worked at the prevailing wage for that job. For example, if the town pays $10 per hour for someone to take meeting minutes, an assisted person assigned to that job should be credited at $10 per hour, as well. Similarly, if the assisted person is performing tasks as a licensed plumber or electrician, those higher rates must be used. In any case, the State minimum wage laws must be observed. It is important to note that a municipal work program is not an opportunity for the town to obtain cheap labor, nor is it a punitive measure for those in need of local welfare assistance. The hours of work performed by the work program participant should be credited at the prevailing wage for that job and not at a lower rate simply because the person is working as part of a local welfare program.

Q. Is the assisted person covered under the town’s workers’ compensation policy when participating in the work program?

A. Possibly. It is up to the governing body to decide whether the work program participants will be covered by the town’s workers’ compensation insurance. This election should be included in the local welfare guidelines as part of the work program. RSA 281-A:2, VII (b). The advantages and disadvantages of providing this coverage should be discussed with the town’s insurance carrier and local counsel before deciding whether or not to provide it.

Q. What are some of the pros and cons of having a welfare work program?

A. Some municipalities feel that the amount of time needed to supervise and train people in a work program just isn’t worth it. Given that local assistance is usually temporary in nature, spending the time to train a person who may not be available to work at the last minute because of a job interview, or because he or she no longer needs local assistance, may make the use of this labor too unreliable to meet the needs of the various town departments. Additionally, the issue of liability is also a concern for many towns—if the person gets hurt on the job, will the town be liable for the injuries? As discussed above, this issue may be addressed, as it is for regular town employees, via the town’s workers’ compensation insurance.

A municipal work program can benefit both the town and the assisted person. As previously stated, the benefits include allowing the town to recoup some of its welfare expenditures by having assisted person perform work for the town. Projects the town would like to undertake, but can’t due to the lack of budgeted hours, may be completed with work program participants. The benefit to the assisted person comes from allowing them to reduce the amount owed to the town in assistance provided, as well as potentially learning new job skills that can be transferred to a job in the community, and the discontinuance of town assistance.

Q. We want to have a work program, but we just don’t have any work available in town. What can we do?

A. The town can work with nonprofits in the area to have assisted persons perform services for those organizations, instead of for the town. RSA 165:31, II. If the nonprofit organization agrees to participate in the municipal work program, an assisted person can be assigned work at the nonprofit. The same rules apply with regard to supervision, training and crediting the hours at the prevailing wage for that nonprofit. If the nonprofit uses only volunteer labor, and has no prevailing wages to use, then the prevailing wage for similar jobs in the area should be used.

Q. What happens if the assisted person doesn’t show up for work, or does not do a good job?

A. Like other requirements of local guidelines—disclosure of income, resources and other material financial data; reasonable work search; and application with other public assistance agencies—participation in a work program may be made a condition of assistance. RSA 165:1-d. If the governing body does include a work program within the town’s written guidelines, and a person who is eligible to receive assistance willfully fails to comply with those conditions, he or she can be disqualified from continued assistance. A person disqualified because of noncompliance with the guidelines may appeal this decision by requesting a hearing within five days. Id.

Given the downturn in the economy, and the increasing number of people in need of local assistance, the time may be right to adopt a work program as part of a local welfare program. Before adoption of the program, the governing body, with the assistance of the welfare administrator, should determine whether adequate training and supervision of program participants is possible with the town’s current workforce. If a work program is adopted as part of the town’s guidelines, the welfare administrator may require eligible assisted persons to work for the town, or a nonprofit organization, as a way to recoup the financial expenditures of the welfare program. A work program can benefit the municipality by utilizing a pool of labor to work on behalf of the town, without increasing budgets, while at the same time benefiting assisted persons, who gain job skills and reduce the amount of assistance to be reimbursed to the town. A win-win proposition!