POP Worker wear: grey cap, green knit cap,gloves, and orange face protector
Funded by NYC Human Resource Administration and administered by NYC Department of Parks and Recreation, the Parks Opportunity Program (POP) was established in March 2001 by Mayor Rudy Giuliani. The current Commissioner of the Parks Department is Mitchell Silver. POP’s mission is workforce development that creates long term self-sufficiency.
POP is a training program that pays $15.00 per hour which is the minimum wage in New York City. $15.00 per hour in a 40-hour work-week amounts to $600 per week or $15,600 semiannually. It offers a living wage for a family of three or four people. If the family is fortunate to live in a N.Y.C.H.A. residence—unburdened by vermin, mold or a worn boiler or elevators—it is a sweet deal for six months.
Add on the special MetroCard that slices the $2.75 transit fare in half, the EBT card that covers grocery expenses, and free childcare to experience more relief–more wiggle room. Some households cheer it while others find its faults. For example, while grey coveralls and yellow raincoats are distributed to everyone, distinctions in work status are made in the T-shirts. Light green indicates the person wearing it is a POP Worker. POP Workers are not permanent Parks Department employees. After two work assignments in six months, one’s term is finished. Imagine trying to explain your resume with a six month gig written in it. Some people don’t mind it and may have accomplished completing three rounds of POP. Many apply for Unemployment Benefits which lasts six months, other people have short term jobs waiting in the wings for them and then, there is the underground economy–working off the books.
“Imagine trying to explain your resume with a six-month gig written in it.”
Another tick against the program that some POP Workers rail loudly about is the membership into the union. They contend the monthly $16.00 dues deducted from their pay does not benefit them in that the benefit does not activate until well into the sixth month of the program.
The following 2008 statistics develop a picture of who tends to New York City’s parks:
30.98% are age 18-29 yrs.
28.59% are age 30-39 yrs.
26.78% are age 40-49 yrs.
13.27% are age 50-59 yrs.
00.38% are age 60 or more yrs.
55.46% non-high school graduate
42.01% HS diploma holder
01.79% some college
00.32% Associate’s degree holder
00.38% Bachelor’s degree holder
00.04% Master’s degree holder
Some POP Workers have a sense of being stigmatized. There are opportunities for Parks Department employees to remind them that they are POP Workers. While a POP Worker may know how to drive a car and possesses a driver’s license, s/he can’t drive a Parks Department vehicle unless it is due to an emergency or achieving City Park Worker (C.P.W.) status or a higher position.
While in the field, POP Workers must ask for permission to use the lavatory, purchase a meal, or leave the work site during the half-hour break. Many permanent employees are conscious of the vigilance that may be felt and will state in advance where and when work stoppage will occur and point out the location of the bathrooms and eateries without escorting them.
Many POP Workers are assigned to Maintenance & Operation units which entails riding in trucks to Green Street locations. Green Streets are gardens and sitting areas found around the five boroughs. Each day, the assigned drivers travel to the listed sites on the manifest. They determine what will be done at the sites. Other POP workers may be assigned to recreation centers, pools, covered tennis courts, or have office duties.
The work arrival time may be either 7 AM, 6 AM, or 5 AM. Reporting to work by 5 AM is usually to lay down salt during a snow or ice storm and clearing the grills of catch basins of trash and leaves. A 6 AM start time indicates working during national holidays or the start of the work week falls on weekends. The 7 AM start time is the usual start time throughout the year.
POP is not the lone workforce development program in the United States; however, it is the largest transitional employment program. It offers work experience in New York City’s parks, playgrounds, tennis courts, pools, and recreation centers. There is the opportunity to learn skills in maintenance, security, horticulture, administration, and customer service. Depending on the zeal of one’s Career Coach and the POP Worker’s interest or desire to break out of the public assistance rut, one has access to career counseling, vocational training, and employment services.
There are five types of education classes, 12 occupational training courses, and five computer courses which are provided by C.UN.Y. schools. There are internships and apprenticeships in the trades. With an enthusiastic Career Coach uncovering the resources, POP Workers can rack up licenses and certifications. For example, the SPARK program is preparation for employment with the M.T.A. The starting salary is $28.18 (2008 figure).
On top of that, female POP Workers are introduced to a boutique named Dress for Success where fine, casual, and office fashions abound. Again, it is a combination of the Career Coach’s knowledge and the POP Worker’s diligence in “digging for the gold.” One has to lift one’s voice to ask questions to uncover opportunities.
There are detractors of the program. Some question why the Department of Parks and Recreation had to be the only NYC Department to manage the daily activities of all the POP Workers. Had the higher-ups considered the Buildings Department, Housing Preservation and Development Department, the Mayor’s Offices, the Department for Youth and Community Development, the Agency for Child Development, the Department for Homeless Services, the Department of Education, or other agencies that could offer life changing experiences?
In the main, POP Workers spend their days keeping up Green Streets–sitting areas, road dividers and small green patches–using blowers, weed-wackers, brooms, rakes, shovels, masks, and gloves—lots of gloves. It is interesting how the Parks Department’s Maintenance and Operation division works. On a daily basis, there are Park employees with POP Workers who travel in trucks throughout the five boroughs to tend to the grass, remove weeds, and trash found within the Green Streets.
There are crews that maintain a particular community district, crews assigned to cover a borough, and the City crews which travel throughout all five boroughs to manage special situations. All crews are given lists of sites to visit each day. The tendency is for the driver and another seasoned employee to survey the area in order to determine how to approach a site. In other words, determining whether the site can go another week without being raked, grass being trimmed or weeds pulled. If maintenance is in order, how extensive will it be?
The question is how do Maintenance and Operation units develop viable job skills in POP Workers? Once finished with the program, can they make a living as a lone M&O Specialist? Probably not, but aligning with others who work or have worked on the M&O trucks could result in growing a landscaping business. It would be a worthy project to investigate whether any POP Workers—past or present—have sat together to plan a landscaping or street sweeping operation.
While there are detractors of the program, there are POP Workers who are grateful for its existence. Take Dominic Colon, age 59, he states, I have benefited financially and have learned from it. It has made me humble. This is my first POP assignment. Before, I’ve done the NYC Sanitation Department and the NYC Shelter system’s six- month programs.
Four POP workers were interviewed individually for this story. While this is a small number, the participants consistently expressed appreciation for the program. One question posed is, “If you could talk to Commissioner Silver about POP what would you say? Colon said, “I would say to the Commissioner, Keep the program going because people need this kind of program.” Yari Rodriguez, a mother of two children stated, “It is an excellent program that helped me to make a way through for making it here in New York.”
Terrence Jett, a middle aged man revealed that he hadn’t had an occupation in five years. Jett wants to “Take care of my Driver’s License and obtain my CDL. I want to drive the big trucks.” Melissa Gaillard, 28 and a mother of one young daughter, answered “I can’t say anything yet but my Career Adviser signed me up for the NYPD test. My Career Adviser said with a Benefit card, all City tests are free.”
Gaillard who doesn’t like the cover-all that is the POP uniform—It reminds her of prison gear—is appreciative of learning the different equipment she had to use: the weed-wacker, blower, and rakes. What she would say to Commissioner Silver is: “Thank you for the opportunity for me to receive income for the holidays for my daughter and thank you for teaching me long term skills.”
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