Harlem on a sunny afternoon. A destitute woman approaches Joyce Dorsey, palm outstretched. “This keeps me in check,” Dorsey says, reaching for her purse. “I don’t always want it in my face, but I don’t want to forget it, either.”
At 47, Dorsey is comfortable in her Bronx apartment and fulfilled by her work as a research assistant at Multi-Tasking Systems. But turn the clock back three years, and she was living in a shelter in Manhattan’s Grand Central Station. She was also part of the Grand Central Partnership, a joint venture between the city and private corporations that purported to give job training to low-skilled New Yorkers. “It was no training program,” Dorsey says. “We were put to work for a dollar an hour.”
Determined to develop marketable job skills, Dorsey left the Partnership to enroll in the New York Work Experience Program (WEP), the state’s attempt to move people from welfare to work. “WEP is the biggest exploitation program there is,” she says, still angry about the poverty wages she was paid while working in city parks and hospitals. Dorsey received food stamps, a $215 monthly rent stipend and a $68.50 biweekly living allowance; since her two children live in Baltimore, she only qualified for a single person’s allowance. “I don’t care how you add, subtract, divide or multiply it,” Dorsey says of her WEP benefits, “$68.50 every two weeks is nowhere near minimum wage.”
To make matters worse, her doctors at the Office of Employment Services (which oversees WEP) turned a deaf ear when chronic diarrhea left Dorsey -- who tested HIV positive in 1994 -- too weak to work. “They told me, ’If Magic Johnson can keep working, so can you,’” Dorsey says.
Like Johnson, Dorsey is a survivor. She looked for a way out of WEP and found Multi-Tasking Systems (MTS), a not-for-profit organization run by and for HIV positive people. MTS’ objective is to get people with HIV working again. But unlike WEP, it actually provides computer and clerical training. When a client is ready to go to work, MTS places them with one of its affiliated companies. “You’d be amazed at how many people say that MTS kept them from dying,” Dorsey says. “That brings a smile to my face.”
Though Dorsey worked at the Urban Justice Center during and after her training at MTS, she is now an MTS staffer, conducting surveys for a Hunter College study of the pros and cons of work versus disability in people with debilitating illnesses. In addition to the 400 questions she asks each participant, Dorsey and her MTS colleagues organize focus groups, transcribing them to prepare the data for analysis. “I talk to people who are coming out of the aftershock of being told to go home and wait for HIV to take its toll,” she says. "For those who are working again, there’s a rejuvenation.
“The increase is not just in salary,” Dorsey says, “but in self-awareness and self-empowerment -- things you can’t put a price on. People like having enough money to make their own choices, and they like being able to make regular stops at the ATM.”