Workfare participant is entitled to the minimum wage, holds New York's highest court

In re Carver v. State, No. 139 (N.Y. Nov. 19, 2015).

The ferry terminal at which Walter Carver worked as a janitor (credit: Dwayne Bent / flickr)

The ferry terminal at which Walter Carver worked as a janitor (credit: Dwayne Bent / flickr)

As part of welfare reform, some states and localities have set up “work experience programs.” In New York City, this program requires welfare recipients to work a minimum number of hours at an assigned job. Walter Carver, an elderly veteran, participated in this program, and in exchange received cash assistance and food stamps. Later, Carver won $10,000 in the New York lottery. New York wants to take half of that amount to reimburse itself for the public assistance it paid Carver—as the state is authorized to do under New York law.

Carver objects. If you add up the cash assistance and food stamps Carver received while he was working, and then subtract the money that New York wants to take from his lottery winnings, it amounts to less than the minimum wage. This, of course, is unlawful under the Fair Labor Standards Act—so long as the FLSA’s minimum-wage requirements actually protected Carver.

That, then, is the question: did the FLSA apply to Carver when he was participating in the work experience program? A majority of the New York Court of Appeals decides that it did. Carver received no on-the-job vocational training. He performed the kind of janitorial services performed by other salaried city employees. In exchange, Carver received cash benefits and food stamps on which he was entirely dependent. As a matter of economic reality, he was an employee of the city, and so protected by the FLSA. 

Two judges dissent, arguing that the majority “defies the will of Congress.”