Under the welfare plan unveiled last week, the administration made it clear that these jobs should not be covered by minimum wage and other worker protections laws.
But on Wednesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said in a statement that "this administration has absolutely no intention of abandoning those very important protections."
"President Bush and I will insist that welfare recipients receive at least the minimum wage for the hours that they work, including community service jobs," Thompson said.
Last week, the administration released a 36-page plan for renewing the landmark 1996 welfare overhaul. Its recommendations to Congress include a significant increase in the number of people each state must put to work, and an increase in the number of hours that each person must be at work.
States could meet this requirement by helping welfare recipients get regular private sector jobs, or by putting them in government-created, community-service jobs.
The plan asserted that welfare checks given to families who are participating in "supervised work experience or supervised community service are not considered compensation for work performed. Thus, these payments do not entitle an individual to a salary or to benefits provided under any other provision of law."
This would represent a reversal of a 1997 decision by the Clinton administration. After a tussle over the issue with labor unions and others, President Clinton's Labor Department ruled that welfare recipients participating in community service programs were entitled to the minimum wage and other worker protections.
Minimum wage is $5.15 per hour nationally, higher in some states.
The issue turned out to be largely irrelevant in most states. With a booming economy, it was relatively easy for people to find jobs, and few states created community service programs. But in New York City, for example, where there is a large workfare program, welfare recipients get paid at least minimum wage.
Under the Bush plan, many more people would be required to work, and most observers believe that states will be forced to create similar types of community service jobs.
The issue was already prompting outrage from unions and others. "We cannot abide using public funds to create millions of second class jobs," Linda Chavez-Thompson of the AFL-CIO said Tuesday.
A senior White House official said the administration never intended this language to wind up in the plan and moved to back off it as soon as top officials realized it was there.
Still, a top welfare official at HHS, Andrew Bush, told the Los Angeles Times that the provision was included because community service jobs are not the same as regular jobs.
"It's intended to give them some work experience and give them an understanding of work," Bush told the Times for a story published Wednesday. "That is not something that should be subject to minimum wage laws."
By Laura Meckler