WEP Death Sparks Council Fight

City Limits Weekly, August 4, 1997

A late July hearing that was supposed to discuss the death of a workfare street sweeper two months ago, instead turned into a discourse on the death of decorum in the New York City Council.

Members of the council’s government operations committee grilled HRA staff–including Commissioner Lilliam Barrios-Paoli–for nearly three hours last Wednesday on allegations that the agency fails to apply health and safety standards to Work Experience Program [WEP] workers. In June, Marsha Motiperad, who had serious heart condition, collapsed and died in on her lunch hour near a WEP site in Coney Island.

Motiperad was initially deemed unemployable by Health Services Systems, the contractor who performs worker fitness reviews for the city. However, months later, she was re-evaluated and assigned to clerical work and garbage pickup details.

As Barrios-Paoli prepared to testify, she was interrupted by Stephen DiBrienza, chairman of the council’s welfare committee, who has been an outspoken critic of HRA’s workfare plan. Fellow Brooklyn Democrat Mary Pinkett, who chaired the hearings, would have none of it and directed the commissioner to read her prepared statement. For a few tense moments both Barrios-Paoli and DiBrienza spoke simultaneously, drowning each other out.

After a five-minute recess the commissioner delivered her testimony–alone. When he finally got to talk, DiBrienza ripped into the health analysis firm. “HS Systems is getting $18 million over 3 years,” he told City Limits. “I believe this creates an undue pressure to approve the maximum amount of people….There should be an appeal mechanism other than the fair hearing format.”

The hearing came two weeks after a team of lawyers and advocates brought a class action suit against the city on behalf of WEP workers assigned to clean streets for the Department of Sanitation. Lawyers for WEP workers are seeking access to toilets and water, protection from traffic hazards, proper equipment, work-site training, and protection for workers who assert their rights.

WEP workers assigned to the details charge they have been given tasks such as cleaning up raw sewage without being issued adequate protective equipment–or even shovels.

–Alexandria Felton