U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–Tonja McGhee, a 25-year-old mother of three, entered New York City’s welfare-to-work program in the spring of 1998. To her, its quid-pro-quo appeared to be opportunity knocking: As a worker in the city’s Housing Authority, she would gain invaluable on-the-job experience aimed at keeping her off welfare. At least that was the theory.

Within a few months, however, the city’s hotly debated sing-for-your-supper program had McGhee singing the blues.

McGhee is now one of four women who claim they suffered sexual and racial harassment by their Work Experience Program supervisors, according to a federal lawsuit filed in May on their behalf.

The lawsuit was brought only after the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had reviewed their claims and found that the allegations were substantial enough that they could be brought in a federal lawsuit seeking damages.

The city has asked the court to dismiss the suit, maintaining that the program’s workers are not actually employees and, therefore, are not legally entitled to civil rights protection in the workplace, says Philip Taubman, an attorney specializing in employment discrimination who represents McGhee. For that reason, he adds, he and at least one other of the four women’s attorneys have filed a second lawsuit in state court, because state civil rights law is broader in scope.

"These women are the most vulnerable," says Taubman, "because not only are their so-called jobs at stake, but their whole family is at stake, their children are at stake, because their benefits can be cut off."

Yolanda Wu, an attorney at NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund representing one of the other women involved in the case, adds: "Women working in the city’s Work Experience Program are employees entitled to protection under federal, state and local civil rights laws. The city decides who they work for, what they do and how they do it, which we argue shows that they are employees fully covered by these laws." (Women’s Enews is a project of NOW Legal Defense).

Henry Freedman, the director of the city’s Welfare Law Center and a frequent critic of the welfare-to-work program, adds that, although the women are working, they do not enjoy the benefits most receive from employment: They are not entitled to a day off, sick leave or vacation, he says. In addition, they do not have the right to organize for collective bargaining or have an adequate grievance procedure.

"They are mothers and if they miss a day, to go to their child’s school or deal with the landlord, they have to go to a fair hearing to justify it,” Freedman explains. "And they are on welfare," he adds. "There is no place else for them to go. They don’t have the choice of walking off the job."

U.S. Attorney Filed Suit, With Attorney General Ashcroft’s OK

The suit claims the women "were subjected to hostile work environments" in violation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The women also charge that the city and the city’s Housing Authority, which administers the program, failed to prevent or correct the discriminatory treatment of the women.

After the city declined to negotiate a settlement, Mary Jo White, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, filed the suit, with the approval of Attorney General John Ashcroft. The suit seeks both compensatory damages and an order directing the city to amend the situation.

McGhee worked at what would seem to be a job: For several days a week, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., she swept, took out trash and performed other grounds-keeping chores at a low-income housing project. Within a month or so, she and her supervisor entered into a consensual sexual relationship. McGhee broke it off after a brief time.

Her supervisor then began to harass her–calling her at home on a daily basis, threatening that he was "going to get her" if she didn’t resume the relationship, complaining to his superior that she wasn’t doing her work, the suit claims. In October of 1998, the suit alleges, her supervisor called her into his office, shut off the lights and told McGhee to pull down her pants. She refused and ran.

The city’s welfare-to-work program, designed to comply with the 1996 federal welfare law, mandated that some 30,000 city welfare recipients must work in exchange for their welfare checks. The maximum welfare benefit for a parent and two children in New York City is $577. A recipient’s failure to work can result in the reduction or cancellation of benefits. Since its inception in 1997, the program has been viewed either as an efficient welfare-reform effort or virtual slavery, depending on one’s political perspective.

Tamara Bedic falls decidedly in the latter camp. An attorney for Maria Gonzalez, 33, another suit complainant, Bedic says the welfare-to-work program "targets women who have a high tolerance for abuse and are least likely to complain–because they don’t know what their rights are, because English isn’t their first language, because a lot of reasons."

Question: Are Those Working for Benefits Covered by Labor Laws?

Gonzalez, now battling cervical cancer, did clerical work for the city’s Human Resources Administration during the spring of 1997. The lawsuit says her supervisor "attempted to grope her" genital region, blew on her neck and twirled her hair. When she rebuffed his advances, he called her a "lesbian" and a "bitch." Her complaints to his superior went unheeded, Bedic says.

The legal protections for workers like McGhee and Gonzalez are, in fact, at the heart of the legal wrangling over the lawsuit.

City Corporation Counsel senior attorney Lorna Bade Goodman has said it isn’t clear whether federal employment law protects the program’s participants against sexual discrimination because they are not viewed as actual employees.

Housing Authority spokesman Howard Marder declined to comment "because this matter is in litigation."

The suit’s other two complainants, Tammy Auer and Theresa Caldwell-Benjamin, also brought their situations to the attention of their bosses’ supervisors. Auer’s supervisor–in the Staten Island office of the city’s sanitation department–asked her to go on vacation with him and move in with him, suggesting more than once that they could make a "beautiful baby" together.

Ms. Auer, who is represented by NOW Legal Defense and Daniel J. Leddy, Jr., was so upset by the alleged harassment that she suffered protracted periods of depression so severe that she was unable to leave her home.

Caldwell-Benjamin, an African-American woman assigned to the Parks Department, was told to paint the interior of a two-story building operated by the department. On her first day of work in January of 1997, she spotted a noose hanging in a window and saw a racist caricature taped to a wall.

When she complained to her supervisor, she was told that the other employees "didn’t mean anything by it," the lawsuit says. The noose and drawing remained in place throughout Caldwell-Benjamin’s entire week of work there.

Taubman expects the federal District Court judge to rule on the federal suit sometime in the fall.

Mary Jane Fine is a journalist with more than two decades of experience covering urban affairs.