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D.C.’s youth-employment program is just like work—minus the paycheck.

The District’s Passport to Work summer jobs program offers local youth “real opportunities—real experience—real pay,” according to the motto on the handbook. Well, two out of three ain’t bad, say participants. Thanks to legal loopholes and D.C.’s budget crisis, many young people who signed up for work experience this year got paid less than the city’s minimum wage—and some spent part of the summer working for free.

Eighteen-year-old Chipalo Street, who plans to attend Haverford College in Pennsylvania this fall, installed and moved computers at Woodrow Wilson Senior High without pay for nearly a month earlier this summer. Then he spent six weeks working at $5.15 per hour, $1 below the minimum wage set by District law.

“I was volunteering when I first started working, because the program hadn’t started,” Street says. “Last year, they told us we’d be getting $6.50, and we got $5.15. It seems like every year it’s the same thing—’We’ll pay you more next year.’”

High school and college students looking for something—anything—to do over the summer have been willing to take the lower wage. Street, a Wilson graduate, says, “It’s real good work experience, and I like the people here.”

And ads for the program didn’t exactly emphasize the possibility of subminimum pay. “Students hired to work may earn $6.15 to $12 per hour,” said a page available this spring at the District’s 2002 Summer Employment Program Web site, which has since been changed.

The mayor’s Web site makes a similar claim: “City youths will gain work experience in industries…which pay wages ranging from $6.15 per hour to $10 per hour depending upon the

skills required.”

The industries may pay that much. But the jobs don’t. D.C. law allows exceptions to the $6.15 minimum wage for workers under 18 and for “adult learners” ages 18 and over, if the older workers are in a 90-day training program.

So in the eyes of the D.C. Department of Employment Services, which oversees summer youth employment, a Passport to Work paycheck isn’t a real paycheck after all. “It’s not a wage,” says department spokesperson Diana Johnson. “It’s more of a stipend, a training program.” Even so, while discussing the program, Johnson repeatedly says “wages”—then corrects herself by saying “stipends.”

Deborah Brouse, whose 20-year-old son, Steve Gilberg, also worked at Wilson for $5.15 an hour, is unimpressed by the distinction. “Kids and families all over the city saw advertisements for this,” Brouse says, “to find out later it was simply a lie. My kids went through D.C. schools, so it’s not the first time we’ve experienced something being said and something else being done with D.C. government.”

Money is so tight, Johnson says, that the District can’t afford to pay its own minimum wage. “We’re dealing with some limited funds in the summer jobs program,” she says, “and we couldn’t serve about 1,000 people because of the budget. At $5.15 an hour, we can serve 5,000 people. One thousand people wouldn’t get jobs if we went up to the maximum.”

The program did place approximately 800 young people in jobs with the federal government or the private sector, where they made at least the D.C. minimum wage. The 5,000 other participants went to the schools and other D.C. public-sector workplaces.

“I asked for five students,” says David Thompson, who supervised workers in Wilson’s computer lab, “and it turned out 15 or 20 were assigned to our location.” The school found places for all of them, he says, and he was pleased by the quality of their work.

But Thompson says he’s dismayed by the way the District has run the program. He first heard of Passport to Work from a slide advertisement in the Mazza Gallerie’s movie theater, which promised wages from $6.15 to $10. (Even at those rates, the student workers would have been cheaper than regular staff.)

Thompson says he’s not sure whether to do the program again. “The quality of personnel they had down [at the administrative offices] was poor,” he says. “You can’t call down to get ahold of anybody. I feel like this is a throwback to the Barry era.”

For the new generation, it’s an introduction to the workings of District government today. What have they learned? “It has taught me,” Gilberg says, “I can’t always trust a job advertisement that says ‘real pay.’” CP