Joanna Nganda found work because of welfare.

Nganda had a career in communications in Burundi before she came to Maine with her mother in 2015. She wanted to find a job in the United States, but she needed to wait months before she was eligible for a work permit. In exchange for the General Assistance she received from Portland during that time, she helped the city with translating documents and manned the front desk of the city’s Refugee Services Office.

She was one of the participants of what is called a workfare program, which requires able-bodied people to work in exchange for rental assistance and other benefits. That work experience and a positive reference from her supervisor helped Nganda get a job as a patient services representative for Greater Portland Health.

“I’m very thankful,” said Nganda, now 28. “I don’t think I would have been able to get this job without the workfare program. It is extremely hard for new immigrants to get a job here without local references.”

Now Portland’s workfare program is one of the models for a neighboring city. The Westbrook City Council is taking steps to establish a workfare program by July 1, the start of the next fiscal year.

“The purpose here is not punitive,” said Westbrook City Manager Jerre Bryant. “What we’re really trying to do is help people get back on their feet.”

The council will hold a public hearing and second reading Monday on the adoption of a standard General Assistance ordinance written by the Maine Municipal Association. That ordinance would allow for workfare, and Bryant said city staff would submit the program guidelines to the council for final approval. The council will meet at 7 p.m. in Room 114 of Westbrook High School.

General Assistance Administrator Harrison Deah estimated that 16 people would qualify for workfare under the ordinance, less than 5 percent of current General Assistance recipients. In the past 30 days, 335 individuals in a total of 72 households received General Assistance from Westbrook. People likely to be exempt from workfare would be those who cannot work for medical reasons, already have a job, are in substance abuse treatment programs, fulfill a volunteer requirement for other benefits, or are single parents of young children.

“The majority of people that come into General Assistance, they want to work,” Deah said.

TRANSITIONING TO SELF-SUFFICIENCY

It is unclear how many people participate in workfare across the state. Maine municipalities can choose whether to establish a local workfare or other work-training program, and there is no statewide list of existing programs.

In Portland, 484 adults out of 2,049 General Assistance recipients – 23 percent – participated in workfare last year. People eligible for the program fill out a skills assessment and meet with staff to determine their work site. The city has about 26 possible placements, ranging from manual labor at Evergreen Cemetery to office work in City Hall to serving guests at the soup kitchen.

The total amount of assistance a person receives is divided by the minimum wage, and the result is the number of hours that person is required to work. The minimum wage in Portland is $10.68; in Maine, it is $9.

“It allows us to work on the transition from public assistance to self-sufficiency in a positive way,” said Aaron Geyer, Portland’s General Assistance Program manager.

Failing to complete the workfare requirement will cost a person his or her benefits. But Geyer said that is rare, and more often he sees clients transition away from General Assistance. For example, the city sends some people to work in baggage claim at the Portland International Jetport. The skills they learn there are often attractive to potential employers at the airport, and some past participants have been hired as a result.

“It was a win-win,” Geyer said.

Also a model for Westbrook, the workfare program in South Portland is much smaller. About 300 families receive General Assistance every year. While Director of Social Services Kathleen Babeu said many clients volunteer or seek job training in other ways, only a handful are selected for workfare with the city. In December, for example, that number was just two.

“We’re very cognizant of making sure that the matches work well for both the workfare client and the department head within the city,” Babeu said. “We like to make sure it is going to enhance what our client wants to do in a field.”

The desire to bring workfare to Westbrook came from Mayor Mike Sanphy, who was elected to his first term in November. Sanphy did not respond to requests for comment, but at a City Council meeting in May, he said he supports a workfare program out of “fairness to the taxpayers.”

“I want to make sure we have a fair and equitable program where people that are in need are taken care of, but people who are able to work should be able to provide for themselves,” Sanphy said. “We can help them do that.”

UNWORKABLE IN SOME COMMUNITIES

Workfare isn’t successful in every town or city, however.

Katie Dufour, a legislative advocate for the Maine Municipal Association, said the program is most successful in communities with more potential work sites, such as a public works department and a community center.

“If you’re a very small rural community that has one building where all municipal business is conducted, you contract out for road repair or maintenance, there really isn’t an opportunity for workfare,” Dufour said.

Suesan Packer, board president of the Maine Welfare Directors Association, is the General Assistance administrator for the city of Brewer and the town of Searsport. She has arranged successful placements in a town recycling center and in an office at Brewer City Hall, but she said clients haven’t shown up for work on other occasions.

“It’s hit or miss,” Packer said. “It depends on who the person is.”

Bryant, the Westbrook city manager, said he does not believe the city will need to bring on extra staff to oversee the program. Westbrook officials are compiling a list of potential job sites in city departments and local nonprofits. Deah said a letter about the potential workfare program went out to nonprofits that receive money from the city.

“We want to make it something that people enjoy doing,” Deah said.

From her experience in Portland, Nganda said she was grateful to earn her benefits from the city.

“For me, that was really important,” Nganda said. “I did not want to seem like I was getting help and benefits from General Assistance without doing anything to compensate for that. It makes me feel better that I was doing something for the community.”

Nganda speaks English and French, and her language skills allowed her to get a workfare assignment relevant to her goals. Immigrants with professional skills but limited English are not always so lucky, she said.

“They find themselves being put in jobs where being understood is not necessary,” she said. “These jobs are not particularly fulfilling.”

Nganda said she hoped Westbrook could offer a diverse range of work sites, especially for immigrants relying on General Assistance while trying to find work in a new country.

“Most of us are able to work,” Nganda said. “We came here with degrees, and we have skills. It was extremely beneficial to get out of the house and do something.”

Megan Doyle can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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