Disadvantaged students being fired from Social Security, health agency


WASHINGTON -- Nineteen-year-old Danita Hill jumped at the chance in July to work at the Health Care Financing Administration in Woodlawn, which participates in a popular federal program to give disadvantaged high school and college students job experience and pay at federal agencies.

"This program is a great opportunity for students," says Ms. Hill, a junior at Morgan State University, who performs secretarial and clerical chores. She works part-time alongside professionals who teach her skills that she can use in the classroom and in a job.

But the Stay-in-School program, which reaches about 14,000 students across the country, is being threatened by a new Clinton administration effort to restrain federal employment. Beginning Jan. 7, the Health Care Financing Administration, which runs the Medicare and Medicaid health programs, will cut the number of students it has nationwide from 265 to 50.

Other agencies, including the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn and the Food and Drug Administration in Rockville, also report plans to scale back employment. Social Security has trimmed its Baltimore-area employment in the program from about 90 last year to 70 today, partly because of a new policy established by the Office of Management and Budget.

Management and Budget officials have decided, for the first time, to count students in the program as regular federal employees. The policy change, made earlier this year, is now forcing agencies to reduce student employment in order to meet federal employment ceilings.

The alternative to reducing student employment is not practical, federal agency officials say: to stop filling vacancies of regular jobs.

Employment ceilings have been in effect for years, but there's pressure to reduce employment because of President Clinton's pledge to eliminate 100,000 jobs by attrition.

Agency officials assert that the program is a bargain that helps students and helps the government meet manpower needs. "We consider it be successful," says Terry Reynolds, director of personnel at the Health Care Financing Administration. "It enables us to have support staff . . . and that frees up our higher-level analysts to be involved in other duties. It's a good program all the way around."

Some officials are bitter, but in deference to the powerful Offic of Management and Budget -- which controls their purse strings -- they are not complaining publicly.

The policy change, said one particularly angry federal official, might allow the Office of Management and Budget to boast, "Look at us, we're really doing great" in controlling employment, but "in reality you kick these kids out on the street."

A spokesman for the budget agency would not comment, despite repeated requests for information on the policy change.

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