A Day's Work, A Day's Pay

Three welfare recipients transform their lives through their fight against workfare
Year Released
Film Length(s)
57 mins
Closed captioning available
Remote video URL


A Day's Work, A Day's Pay follows three welfare recipients in New York City from 1997 to 2000 as they participate in the largest welfare-to-work program in the nation.

Featured review

A brilliant film about poverty, welfare reform, and the spirit of the people who suffer both. We will become a better country, with better policies, if every American sees this.
Frances Fox Piven
Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Sociology, City University of New York Graduate School


When forced to work at city jobs for well below the prevailing wage and deprived of the chance to go to school, these individuals decide to fight back, demanding programs that will actually help them move off of welfare and into jobs. A Day's Work, A Day's Pay traces the personal and political evolution of its three main characters.

Juan Galan successfully organizes WEP workers while battling the demons of his own poverty-stricken childhood. Jackie Marte, who drops out of school in order to raise her two children, tries desperately to stay out of workfare, and in the nick of time succeeds in finding a job-training program that allows her to leave welfare for good. Jose Nicolau overcomes his timidity as he learns to organize against workfare, inspiring his peers with impassioned speeches, and testifying to the City Council about sexual harassment of WEP workers.

As the film tracks the three-year effort to pass two critical pieces of legislation, viewers will come to understand the real-life impact that social policy has on human beings. They will also comprehend the effort required for poor and working people to transform themselves from victims of the System to fully empowered citizens who take control of their own lives.


Recommended...A well-shot, nicely edited piece of documentary journalism that effectively manages to convey both the frustrations of individuals caught in the web of welfare and their growing political empowerment through grassroots activism.In 1996 Bill Clinton and Congress signed into law a sweeping welfare reform act aimed at radically reducing government support to the poor. In the wake of that legislation, New York mayor Rudy Giuliani similarly vowed to end welfare in New York (the city with the largest welfare roll in the U.S.) by the year 2000. Giuliani's strategy to achieve these ends was to require all able-bodied welfare recipients to work in city agencies and non-profit organizations as part of a Work Experience Program (WEP) that would promote "dignity" and end dependence on welfare. In filmmakers Kathy Leichter and Jonathan Skurnik's A Day's Work, A Day's Pay, however, WEP workers themselves often have a considerably different take: we learn that they are frequently paid a quarter the salary of the city employees doing basically the same jobs, that there are no benefits or allowances for work clothing or equipment, no provisions for workers to attend continuing education classes, no childcare, and that grievances are met with sanctions that threaten to throw the worker out of the program altogether. Following three WEP participants as they work with various community organizations to achieve reforms in the program, this is a well-shot, nicely edited piece of documentary journalism that effectively manages to convey both the frustrations of individuals caught in the web of welfare and their growing political empowerment through grassroots activism. Recommended for collections with interest in political science, labor studies, or social studies in general.
Video Librarian
G. Handman
A Day's Work, A Day's Pay makes a fierce claim for the dignity and rights of the welfare-poor-as-workers. This film chronicles the efforts of participants in New York City's Work Experience Program (WEP) public assistance recipients forced to work for their benefits at dead-end, below minimum wage placements - to organize for decent pay, benefits, worker protections, and, as one organizer put it, the right to stand up and say "I am somebody."A Day's Work follows three organizers, each of whom achieves a vivid presence on the screen. One of them, Juan Nicolau, 41, explains that he wants to be like his father, a building superintendent, "a working man, a caring man." To Nicolau this means, "I want to put my signature on the way I work, like an artist puts his signature on his work." But this film does not foreground the intimate lives of its subjects. A Day's Work is a layered film that moves from the personal outward, as the protagonists, Nicolau, Jackie Marte, and Juan Galan, build activist identities and coalitions among their constituents. These three affiliate with organizations devoted to workers' rights (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), and Community Voices Heard (CVH)), lobby for legislation in the interests of WEP workers, work the halls of city council, and lead worker demonstrations in the city. Their projects and the thrust of their efforts are like those of labor organizers everywhere. The fact that the worker-activists are public assistance recipients, people typically defined in this culture as lazy freeloaders, gives the film the status of a paradigm-shifting work. It thoroughly challenges prevailing definitions of both "welfare recipients" and "workers."At the same time, the film sharpens suspicions that a lot of politicians are every bit as craven as prevailing images of them suggest. We see city council members sleeping during workers' testimony, then waking up to grandstand against legislation providing basic grievance rights for these workers. When Giuliani explains why he is vetoing the WEP-worker-sponsored Grievance Procedure and Transitional Jobs Bill in the winter of 2000, he piously lectures the activists who sit before him, people who worked for two years to bring this legislation before the city council: "One of the worst things government does for people is to give them false expectations. We have lots of people in New York City that are the victims of government giving people the sense that they live in an unreal world and then the realities of life crash down on them and they find themselves unhappy, depressed, and unsuccessful." A WEP worker shouts out, "You don't know anything about us."More than anything, A Day's Work demonstrates how activism becomes a source of clarity, work experience and empowerment for the three organizers. Juan Galan points out that without activism and coalition, passersby see the workers as "chumps," sweeping the street for their pitiful benefits. As unprotected individuals, WEP workers are also in serious danger: reports circulate about rapes and even death on the job. Most galling, WEP workers are counseled at job-search trainings not to tell prospective employers that they are in WEP, even though the program is supposed to function as the best route to real employment. Nicolau speaks for all worker-recipients when he asks, " So what good is WEP if you can't mention it?"A Day's Work, A Day's Pay displays the special character of worker-recipient militancy through the words of an organizer: "They like to keep us in check with their big stick of sanctions. I think we've got to keep them in check with the grievance procedure." When CVH refers Jackie Marte to a transitional, non-profit program that actually provides decent resources, dignity, collegiality, leadership training and a job she believes in, activism truly seems its own reward.A Day's Work concludes with properly mixed emotions and mixed personal and political outcomes. In the end, public policies have not become more humane; the poor have not prevailed. But the film is nevertheless a bracing testament to what activism can accomplish. Nicolau speaks from experience when he suggests that if only all the WEP workers showed up at City Hall, together, objecting to the wretched work conditions they all faced, then the chances for change would be great.
Labor History
Rickie Solinger
This remarkable film is about mean social policy and the impressive efforts of grassroots organizations to fight back. Documentaries often fail to tell both the human story and the political story. A DAY'S WORK, A DAY'S PAY tells both.
Peter Edelman
Professor of Law, Georgetown University Law Center
A DAY'S WORK, A DAY'S PAY features workfare participants who refused to take the brutality of welfare reform lying down. Drawing almost exclusively on the typically unheard voices of recipients, this beautiful film offers an amazingly authentic picture of workfare and the people who struggle against it. This compelling story of brave low-income individuals organizing effectively for social change should not be missed.
Mimi Abramovitz
Professor of Social Policy, Hunter College School of Social Work, The Graduate Center of the City University of New York
This powerful film dramatically portrays the real-life impact that law has on human beings. It shows how welfare recipients can be organized to stand up for their rights, and in the process transform themselves from victims of the system to citizens who take control of their lives and futures.
Stephen Wizner
Professor of Law, Yale Law School
A DAY'S WORK, A DAY'S PAY is a beautifully crafted and moving film of the struggles of welfare recipients in New York City as they confront oppressive administrative practices and inadequate economic assistance. I have shown it to my Graduate Social Work students in "Social Policy" and undergraduate students in the Liberal Education course "Race, Class and Gender in the United States". Both groups were stimulated to participate in concerned and critical discussions.
Marek Fuller MSW
Department of Social Work, University of Minnesota

Awards and Screenings

PBS Broadcast, 2001
Harry Chapin Media Awards: Excellence Meets the Grassroots, 2001
Brooklyn Arts Council 35th Annual International Film Festival, 2002
Cine Las Americas Film Festival, 2002
New York Latino Film Festival, 2002
US Congressional Screening, 2004

Features and Languages

Film Features

  • Closed Captioning
  • Transcript

Promotional Material

Promotional Stills

Resources for Educators

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