Their group's name the Coalition for the Equitable Treatment of State Employees is a misnomer. The 25 or so women members are actually former state employees. All have lost their jobs with the Virginia Department of Social Services for the way they applied for federal food-stamp benefits paid to victims of Hurricane Isabel. For nearly two years they've fought, until recently as individuals, to clear their names and reclaim their jobs with the state, jobs with perks like health insurance, flex plans and paid vacation. But they say their efforts to resume their posts, or to even distill the murky circumstances under which they were lost, have proven futile.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture offered federal emergency disaster relief to states after Hurricane Isabel struck in September 2003. A month later, the government paid $56 million in emergency food-stamp vouchers to 548,000 Virginians, in average amounts of $600.
More than 600 state and local social-services employees were among those who received the benefits. A federally prescribed review of allocations later revealed inconsistencies in many of their applications. As a result, more than 130 state social-services employees were suspended from their jobs.
Many were allowed to return after they were cleared of suspected food-stamp fraud either in their local courts or through departmental administrative hearings. But roughly 40, including Gaddy, Cooper and the unnamed clerk, were terminated. And while the three women acknowledge some social-services workers abused the aid, they say members of their coalition didn't. Instead, they maintain that they openly provided the information asked of them and followed protocol, yet are suffering the consequences of a poorly administered program and a state agency that systematically dismisses its employees' complaints.
Charles Ingram, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Social Services, says the office can't comment on personnel matters and that investigations into the food-stamp program have wrapped up without incident. But for the disbelieving and angry employees of the coalition, life lingers in a holding pattern.
"This has snowballed into something humongous, and all these things surely haven't happened just because a hurricane came through two years ago," Gaddy says. Gaddy, who worked for 12 years with the state's department of social services as a program support technician earning nearly $20,000, applied for the assistance after hearing about it on the local television news, she says. She took documents such as her driver's license and bank statements and waited in line for hours to apply at her local social-services office in Henrico County.
The interview with an eligibility worker took about 10 minutes, she recalls. Gaddy says she was asked how much money she made and how much food she lost because of the storm. On the spot, she says, she was awarded $553 and issued a slip for a kind of debit card to be used for food purchases.
Months later, reviewers found a discrepancy and suspected her of fraud because she didn't report on her application that her mother who lived with Gaddy at the time received aid through a social-security pension.
Gaddy says she would have reported the income if it had been asked of her. "It's not necessarily the individual's fault, and the state won't go back and review the process," she says. In hindsight, Gaddy estimates she probably should have received about $200 less than she did. After questions were raised about her application, she paid back the money but was charged with welfare fraud. At her lawyer's insistence, she says, she reluctantly pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge in Henrico.
The fraud charge has been like a scarlet "A" on her record, she says, and she's convinced it's what has kept her from being hired for any one of the dozens of jobs for which she's applied. And with two young boys, one of whom is disabled, losing her insurance has hurt as much as losing her income, she says.
"I had a tree come down, too, with Isabel. It didn't come down on my head or my house or my children, but the state brought it down," she says. "And I think the state should give me back my life. I want my job and seniority back. I want my name and record cleared."
Gaddy's story and plight have a common refrain, says state Sen. Benjamin J. Lambert III. He says he received numerous calls from social-services workers alleging that the food-stamp program was, indeed, administered hastily and inconsistently. He also heard that longtime employees like Gaddy and Cooper were being fired. So in May, he and the Virginia State NAACP asked for an investigation into whether state employees were being treated fairly.
"The people who gave the assistance weren't trained very well. If the program had been explained properly, many wouldn't have qualified or accepted the money," Lambert says. "We wanted to look into the records. But the department is not willing to do anything. Evidently, things are going on a higher level," he says.
In Cooper's case, she had worked for DSS since 1998, most recently having served as accounting manager for the federal reporting of grants, cash management and cost allocation of the department's foster-care programs. Her annual salary was $58,000. After the hurricane felled a tree on her house, and after a 10-day power outage spoiled her family's food, she applied for and received $663 in aid. She got into trouble because she didn't report that her four children received death benefits because their father is deceased. She also wasn't asked for the information. And she was cleared in court of suspected fraud.
Despite the outcome of her case, Cooper's problems remain. She hasn't gotten her job back. And, on Aug. 13, she's scheduled for the first of two stem-cell transplants, operations that will cost more than $100,000 apiece. She's not sure whether her husband will have to return to Iraq. But she holds out hope even with respect to her job. What's more, she figures: "I am an entitled to back pay."
Two weeks ago Lambert and Cooper say they met with Virginia Department of Social Services Commissioner Anthony Conyers Jr., along with two representatives from the Office of the Attorney General, to review Cooper's case. Citing personnel reasons, DSS spokesman Ingram declines to comment on the meeting.
As for the coalition's goals, change seems unlikely. Ingram says DSS has "long since finished the investigations" and that employees were treated fairly. "We've pretty much closed the books on this," he says.S
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