WEP Clients Call City’s Medical Evaluations Far From Sufficient
Despite serious medical conditions, thousands of the city’s middle-aged Work Experience Program (WEP) clients are being forced to work in jobs that are endangering their health and their lives because of insufficient medical screenings, critics say.
Rachel Asher, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society, said that that the city’s contracting out medical evaluations to determine a client’s eligibility for "workfare" to HS Systems "is the central problem. I think it’s dangerous and not the best method. People that are chronically disabled are required to go back every three to six months. Non-specialists make decisions that are final and they don’t use the federal disability standards."
Ignoring ailments such as heart conditions, severe asthma, arthritis, diabetes and other serious health limitations, HS Systems has consistently found the people who suffer from these conditions employable, WEP clients have charged.
Most WEP assignments are in the Department of Sanitation (DOS) and the Department of Parks and Recreation, and require outdoor physical labor and exposure to dust, asbestos and chemicals. According to the HS Systems quarterly report covering Jan. 1, 1997 tc Mar. 31, 1997, more than 8,500 people were classified as employable with medical limitations for that three-month period alone. The report also showed the majority of the people being evaluated to be over 40 years old, female and black or Hispanic, showing that middle-aged minority females, who have historically been the lowest-paid group in the workforce, make up the majority of WEP.
Those who reel they are too sick to work can appeal for a hearing, but in the meantime, they must continue to work in the jobs that jeopardize their health or face terminations of beneflts. For many people, that can mean eviction.
Officials Deny Problems
Most officials, including Mayor Rudolph Giuliani who initiated WEP in 1995, have not responded to pleas from advocacy organizations or from individuals. Lillian Barrios-Paoli, commissioner of the New York City Department of Social Services, told NewYork 1 on Oct. 1 that she had never heard of WEP workers being treated unfairly, despite the fact that she has several State Supreme Court cases heing brought against her on behalf of ill workers forced to work for WEP. Barrios-Paoli has failed to meet with WEP workers as of press time, though many requests have been made.
"Their position is that there isn’t a real problem," said organizer Milagros Silva. "I think there’s a general perception that WEP workers deserve what they’re getting and that they should work off their benefits no matter what condition they’re in."
The death of Marsha Motipersad last June is only one example. Motipersad, in her 50s, bad quit work alter 17 years due to heart seizures and started receiving welfare. In spite of her falling health Motipersad was required, like all other welfare recipients between 18 and 59, to be re-evaluated by HS Systems every three to six months. HS Systems found her "employable with limitations" and the city sent her to clean Coney Island beaches with the DOS. Montipersad had a heart attack on the job and died.
Another WEP client, Cynthia Iverson, suffers from asthma so severe that she must carry an oxygen tank, Although her doctor said it wasn’t necessary for Iverson to stay at home, and although she said a maintenance assignment, with its heavy exposure to dust and chemicals, would "kill her," Iverson was found employable by HS Systems and assigned to work maintenance in the Department of General Services. After suffering a severe attack before work, Iverson was hospitalized and could not work for 90 days. Her benefits for that period were terminated.
Pearly Alli, 57, worked for many years as a home attendant and then had a cancer operation two years ago. She also suffers from hypertension and must use a cane to walk. Alli was fourul employable by HS Systems and given an assignment in the Department of Sanitation.
Inadequate Screening, Officials Say
In testimony given by the Legal Aid Society to the City Council Committee on Governmental Operations last June, a client who is mentally retarded was found employable by HS Systems without being referred for psychological testing. Another client who suffers from arthritis, low back syndrome and chronic foot problems, which make it difficult and painful for her to walk and stand, was forced to stand in the lobby of an HS Systems for half an hour before her evaluation due to inadequate seating and then denied an X-ray and foot examination. The woman, who spoke little English, was not provided a translator, even though HS Systems requires patients to come to the clinic alone. HS Systems found the woman employable.
A military veteran with a long work history, Marie Mitchell suffers from serious respiratory problems, hypertension and arthritis. HS Systems did not do any pulmonary testing and fonnd her to be "employable with limitations," Mitchell was assigned to work a maintenance job in the DOS. After appealing for a fair hearing, while attending the job, the state affirmed the city’s decision on the grounds that Mitchell’s note from her doctor did not state that she could not work.
Sheila Duncan, 48, was an employee of the MTA for many years before being laid off in 1995. She has high blood pressure and severe allergies, but was found employable by HS Systems and assigned to work in the DOS.
"The doctor at [HS Systems] told me that no matter what his findings were, the puts WET’ case worker, who asked that city puts people where they want to put them. I feel like I’m being doubly punished," said Duncan.
Duncan receives $438 a month and works 50 hours every two weeks (originally she worked 55) which comes out to $4.88 an hour — less than minimum wage.
Barbara Johnson, 54, worked for the city until she was laid off five years ago. Johnson was assigned to sanitation for several months this year before being transferred to a non-maintenance job, despite suffering from hypertension and an enlarged thyroid gland. Johnson said, as did several other workers, that they were exposed to dust, asbestos and plaster and were given no masks and only one pair of gloves. Johnson, who receives $95.80 every two weeks, works 84 hours every other week, making $2.80 an hour
"HS Systems was totally degrading," Johnson said "The doctors were incompetent and very impersonal."
People have also complained that men and women must disrobe in the same room, and at least two women have complained of being fondled by HS Systems doctors.
‘An Assembly Line’
"A lot ofpeople that I see, that HS Systems has found employable, in my opinion should not be working at all," said a former WEP case worker, who asked that his name not be used. "HS Systems is like an assembly line."
In a memo dated Sept 26, l996, Nancy Muney of the Human Resources Administration which gives the WEP assignments stressed that staff should not assign people to non-target WEP agencies." Target WEP agencies are the Department of Parks, the Department of Sanitation and the Department of General Services. Muney followed with a list of guidelines, including instructions to place those designated "Ell", or employable with medical limitations by HS Systems — such as Iverson, Duncan, Motipersad and Alli — in the Department of Parks and the Department of Sanitation. Reinstatements, including cases such as Mitchell’s, were to go only to these two agencies. At the end of the memo, Muney advised HRA administration to "please instruct your staff accordingly."
Giuliani’s office did not return phone calls. HS Systems was not reachable for comment.