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Investigation: Middlesex Co. Work Experience

February 3, 2011 8:28:23 PM PST
An undercover investigation into a work program that's supposed to get people off welfare found that it is not.

Instead, the people in the program say they feel trapped in a black hole of bureaucracy.

Felicia Farmer wanted to get on her feet again, but finds herself at a dead end.

For 12 weeks now, this is how Felicia Farmer's day begins:

"I'm heading into the program. I wonder what today is going to be like," Felicia Farmer said.

Since October, Felicia has been enrolled in the Middlesex County Work Experience Program. Its purpose is to place welfare recipients "at a worksite" for "35 hours per week".

Instead of working, Felicia and others have been sitting in a classroom for eight hours a day.

"The whole objective of the program is to get you work experience and put you in a work situation, get you gainful employment. That's not happening," Farmer said.

Day after day, Felicia used a small camera to document the endless hours spent sitting in a room.

The monotony was broken only by an occasional movie, in this case "Precious".

Sometimes, she says, they can use computers for job searching, but only if students from Middlesex College which oversees the program are not using those computers.

"This is the computer lab; we don't get to use it that often. I spend most of my time sitting in the classroom. I have not been trained on anything, it's very discouraging," Farmer said.

Instead of working for her welfare check and gaining new work experience at a job site, Felicia shuffles from one classroom to another, week after week, day after day, since October.

"What you're saying here is that the program is in some ways holding you back, in some ways keeping you from getting a job?" asked Eyewitness News Investigative Reporter Jim Hoffer.

"Correct. I don't want to be on Welfare, it was my last resort between that and being out on the streets. You know I have a family, so I thought by taking that road it would push me back out but it's almost like it's holding in a grip," Farmer said.

Eyewitness News tried to get some answers by visiting the supervisor, who's run the program for 19 years.

"But you're running this program. Can't you explain why they are at least not being placed in work experience? Can you at least answer that?" Hoffer asked.

"I just work for Middlesex County College and do not have permission to answer," said Linda Urbach, a CWEP supervisor.

"But you're a supervisor?" Hoffer asked.

"Okay, I am going to have to ask you to leave, you need to leave, you need to leave," Urbach said.

Eyewitness News finally got some answers from a spokesman for the college.

"In the last 6 months, we've taken 20 people off the Welfare rolls," said Tom Peterson, of Middlesex Co. College.

The college spokesman says background checks have slowed the placement of people at work sites, as has the lack of county agencies needing workers at no-cost.

"I'm surprised you're having trouble finding employers willing to take on free labor," Hoffer said.

"There is still a supervision issue, you have to have someone supervise them, you need someone to train them, and if you don't need them they probably won't be as accepting," Peterson said.

"I can't imagine that there aren't non-profits in Middlesex County that aren't begging for free labor," Hoffer said.

"Maybe this report will change that," Peterson said.

All Felicia Farmer is asking for is a chance at getting back on her feet, which won't happen she says, until work is put back into the Work Experience Program.

"Maybe someone will listen to me or look into this, because we're doing absolutely nothing and tax-payers are paying for this," Farmer said, "It's really hindering your progress. It's like going in circles and circles and circles until you pretty much like, 'okay, I give up'."

If you have a tip about this or any other issue you'd like investigated, please give our tipline a call at 877-TIP-NEWS. You may also e-mail us at the.investigators@abc.com and follow Jim Hoffer on Twitter at twitter.com/nycinvestigates


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