Like others classified by the Los Angeles County bureaucracy as a temporary student worker, Patricia Lopez, 51, was not temporary and not a student.
For two decades she has answered phones in county health clinics, a job she took initially to get off welfare. Today, Lopez works about 39 hours a week and takes home little more than $1,000 a month.
Now, as county officials acknowledge poor oversight and widespread abuses in the program, Lopez and others who have long worked in positions intended to employ students for short stints face possible termination with little recourse.
An audit of the program found that at least 64 of the nearly 1,000 participants have been working for six years or more in jobs that offer no paid sick time, no paid vacation, no retirement, no health benefits and little chance to win a promotion. The longest tenure? Twenty-eight years for a Fire Department employee.
"What are you going to do with that employee that worked with us for 28 years as a student worker, 38 hours a week? I think, two more years [and] she would have qualified for a real good retirement in our system," county Supervisor Gloria Molina said at a recent board meeting. "This is really disgraceful."
Although the county-funded program has academic enrollment requirements, a survey taken in recent weeks found that at least 73 workers were not taking classes -- even as managers rushed employees to register for school amid growing scrutiny. Among the 718 student workers who reported that they were enrolled in classes, it was unclear whether their course work was enough to qualify them.
County officials concede that those figures are inadequate and that there may be additional problems in the decades-old program, under which hires were made by individual departments with no countywide oversight. They acknowledge that some workers have languished in jobs for years and could have obtained better positions if the county had classified them differently -- in welfare-to-work programs, for instance. But managers said no effort will be made to aid those workers retroactively.
"There is nothing we can do in terms of the past," said Mike Henry, the county's director of human resources.
Under new rules proposed by Henry, the program would be restricted to full-time students and allow no more than six years of participation.
Many of the questions being raised came to light after the student workers voted recently to unionize and begin negotiations to improve working conditions.
Service Employees International Union's chief negotiator on the issue, Suzan Pour-Sanae, said the workers were "abused and exploited. . . . Every other temporary or recurrent employee that SEIU Local 721 represents does get healthcare after three months."
With more than 100,000 staffers, Los Angeles County is the region's largest employer. A county job has long been considered a path to the middle class, raising questions about how some workers were left in dead-end jobs for so long.
The program was intended for students seeking to gain government experience during a summer or academic quarter before moving on to other things -- recent fliers read, "Get a Life! Be a Student Worker." Over the years, many participants did just that, working directly for one of the five county supervisors or in other government-related roles. A significant number have had a political or familial tie to the county, according to managers who have reviewed a full list of student workers.
When used to create de-facto permanent positions, however, the low wages and lack of benefits conflict with some of the policies of the Board of Supervisors. The board, for example, has on occasion forced developers and county contractors to provide a living wage and health benefits, in part to reduce the strain on public housing projects and county health facilities.
Lopez uses both.
"When I started working for the county, I lived in the projects, and 20 years later, I still do," she said with a chuckle, speaking on a recent day in her cramped Boyle Heights apartment in Building 59 of Ramona Gardens.
A mother of three, Lopez has never had health insurance. She receives no preventive care, and when she's ill, she visits a county clinic at taxpayers' expense.
Other student workers said they have been left with steep bills when they fall ill.
Monique Purry, 24, has worked 40 hours a week in the district attorney's office for three and a half years. A student at Cal State Dominguez Hills, Purry said her student health plan did not cover much of her care when she recently had pneumonia.
With no county health insurance, she said, she was left with a bill of $2,300 after visiting a private doctor.
"I couldn't pay it," Purry said.