What It’s Like To Work in A Welfare to Work Office

It is a Wednesday morning in beautiful Burbank California. The sun is shining warmly from beyond the mansion dusted foothills and clouds are gently moving across a baby blue sky. I am in a tiny red Scion and turning into the parking lot while doing my best to casually clip the No Parking sign the local restaurant has placed at the entrance to the lot. I like to start my day of service and good will to mankind with a little angry deviance.

I work in a large orange rectangle also housing the East Valley In Home Supportive Services Department. Every Tuesday and Thursday they all come in to work and parking garage changes from a “simple stop, lock, and leave your car” into a game of Tetras played by bad drivers who are happy to block your car in or, in my case, just hit your car so hard that the bumper falls off. (For the record, my employer, the county, and the owner of the lot all shrugged shoulders and said it wasn’t their responsibility to help me replace it.) The building is nestled in behind a restaurant, and flanked by a local Armenian Cathedral and convenience store. The buildings back door faces the street and has many large signs instructing visitors to walk around the building, but no one can understand the words until after they have yanked on the door and pounded in the glass for a few minutes.

The main entrance has a metal detector and a security guard. If you have a badge from the County, you never need to be screened and can bypass the long line with a nod to the security guard. Before leaving the lobby, it is wise to approach the bullet proof glass partitioning the receptionist from the waiting area to ask if anyone is here for you. If you don’t ask, and you are running late to work, there is a greater than normal  chance you have a client waiting in hard plastic chairs.I like to turn to the room of people waiting and greet them – it causes people to relax and be nicer to their workers once they are called through the heavy door leading to the long hallways. From here it is a Choose Your Own Adventure featuring more locks than the Panama Canal which can only be opened my a security tag carried with your badge. If you’re running late, take the stairs. You can have your leg in a cast and crawl up the stairs faster than the elevator … I’ve seen it done.

The office space is a sterile landscape of cube farms. Small children occasionally burst into tears because looks like a doctors office from a dystopian nightmare. The social workers here are mostly young women, clad in black, scuttling from one cube to the next while drinking coffee or whispering with clients across government issue desk modules. Don’t stand still if you get motion sickness or fear earthquakes- the flimsy floor shakes when toddlers scamper and many small earthquakes have gone unnoticed by the staff because it felt like someone walking by. Of course, I sit as far from the door as possible. This means I’m as far from the kitchen and restrooms as can be imagined and I’ve learned to never miss a chance to see the loo when possible. However, my cube has windows and an awkward layout that prevents people from disturbing me. I live for these windows. I also enjoy the occasional balloons that break the monotony. Birthdays are fiercely celebrated and decorated for with gusto.

papercut
papercut

7.5 hours of the workday are spent with my best friend – the computer. Programs and data bases like LEADERS, GEARS, PhASE store participant information and program rules. We would all look better if there was a Spell Check feature on any program where I have to leave notations. Microsoft Excel is mandatory for my sanity.   I can see the 180 color coded names of clients and each of those names is also on a file in a locked cabinet. Every cabinet and drawer has a lock and when not in use, it is locked. You will never see the name or any identifying information about a client posted in my space because confidentiality is as much a feature of the office as the slow elevator. What you will find are boxes of toys, markers, and books tucked under the desks.

The big room quickly fills with sounds and smells. Coffee perfumes the room at the start of the business day and again at 4 pm.  Outlook emails  chimes every time a client checks in with reception. The same introductory speech is delivered 8 times a day to new clients and the raised forces of crying babies, laughing children, chattering people, and frustrated parents quickly drive me to plugging headphones in my ears when I’m alone. They are not plugged into anything, but wearing them helps me focus on my thoughts and tune out the cacophony.

Welfare to Work is what Welfare Reform looks like in practice. We call it the GAIN program in L.A. County.

It is awesome. The focus is employment… a job, a better job and a career for people on public cash aid. However, being a parent and needing employment comes with hurdles of paying for child care, affording transportation, and knowing how to land a job that will permanently  lift you from poverty. GAIN addresses all of those and more. I make appointments for clients who need mental health, domestic violence, and substance use counseling and I tell people how to become students. When they find employment (on their own or through our job search activities) I help them fund a work wardrobe. As I work through files, I pile them on the corner of my desk to take for drop off with my supervisor who will return the forms the next day having approved or denied my request to fund the needs of my clients – who are called participants.

This job is one long test – of patience, of creative thinking, of character and sadly of spelling. Everything is on a clock. I have 24 hours to take action on every call, email, snail mail or visitor to the office. Deadlines for reviews are constant and at any time 15% of my work is with an auditor for quality control. It feels like I’m always being tested. Fortunately I’m a great student. There are days when my key breaks in the file cabinet, my fingers become plastered with bandages from deep paper cuts inflicted by case folders, and the County Information Line (211) gives out my office number to suicidal strangers just as three families walk into the office without appointments. Those days are frustrating. My coworkers are the best part of being here. We share stories of our families, gossip about pop-culture and work as a team without emailed questions and answers when facing a difficult situation. Good Case Management is a team sport.

Occasionally the days are heartbreaking.  This week I met with a mother who was ashamed to ask for food stamps and her baby was stillborn from malnutrition. Social pressure and the stigma of food stamps made it hard for her to ask for the help that meant the difference between life and death. I wish the people posting angry Facebook Memes about parents on Welfare could see the end result of their hate. Food stamp fraud is rare. This is the second baby in 8 years that I know was not born alive because the mother was ashamed to ask for help in time. If you are really anti abortion, you should be pro-food-stamps.

Some days I have to push the black button under my desk and summon the security guard. Yesterday I was close to pushing it when a woman rushed into my cube and demanded I speak with her. She refused to leave and sit with her worker and remained yelling in the hallway because… frankly I don’t care. The best way to keep me from helping you is for you to become aggressive or argumentative with my coworkers. I trained many of them so I trust they have given you correct answers. Following directions and resolving problems without being a brat is an important life skill for adults. I won’t inhibit your personal growth by stepping in to interfere with your case management until something is seriously inaccurate with what you’re being told. I will interrupt your meeting to ask of I can hold your crying baby…babies and children love me:it’s a thing and we don’t fight it. Yesterday I help a starving toddler whose mom was proclaiming she did not want to be a parent any more – yesterday was heartbreaking and I spent half an hour walking up and down the hallway singing to a hungry and sobbing child until she fell asleep.

On ideal days ; people come to their appointments and bring all the dead trees I have asked of them. They bring paychecks and we celebrate their employment and plot their next goal and how to get there. Parents come in with children who are fed and clean and fun to have nearby and we adults do “old people stuff”. I feel useful. My boss and I talk over the partition between our cubicles and we laugh and also debate policy. On great days – people leave me and we break up and they move on to a life outside of county assistance, or a life with a case manager who does not have to do  triage on their lives.

toilet paperwork
No job is finished until the paperwork is done.

On average days : Several times a day I email and speak on the phone with local homeless shelters to find space and discuss policy and answer their questions about the program. Twice a day I walk to the 7-Eleven for caffeine – sometimes the owner will let me sing instead of pay. Mostly I need to walk out of the building and see the sky. It feels like a prison after a few hours of whispered desperation filling the air. My two breaks are filled with FaceBook updates and texting to my friends for sanity checks – all done from my personal phone.

By 5pm most of the staff and clients to are gone. My car is easy to find in the lot and I am physically and mentally exhausted -just in time to get a 4 year old from day care!

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