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At first blush, it may seem that a state appellate court erred the other day when it ruled that people working off their welfare checks in New York City could be paid less than regular city employees even though they performed similar jobs.

It was a persuasive decision, though, and not just because it was unanimous or because the court said the law upon which the suit was founded had since been repealed.

New York City's Work Experience Program requires most clients to work off their welfare checks. These workers help city government do a better job amid large, diverse public demands. The work provides valuable experience to welfare clients. It's experience that can be utilized in future employment. The work program deters fraud. It saves the public some expense for the municipal services performed.

Recipients of the welfare checks do not work for free. State law requires that they receive the minimum wage, now $5.15 an hour.

There must be safeguards in New York City -- or any other government -- to prevent the displacement of regular public employees with those on workfare.

But New York law and public policy ought to encourage people on welfare who are able to work off their checks. They and the taxpayers benefit, and the different hours, qualifications and experience of these temporary workers justify pay scales less than those of full-time public employees.

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