WELFARE PROGRAM WHACKED:
ADVOCATES FILE SUIT AGAINST CITY

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Six months after the city began WeCare, an ambitious program to move disabled welfare recipients to work, advocates have filed suit, charging that the initiative actually discriminates against the people it’s intended to help.

On August 3, lawyers with the Legal Aid Society of New York filed a class action suit against Human Resources Administration Commissioner Verna Eggleston. At the heart of the case is the city’s creation of three distinct WeCare centers to process case information, provide specialized referrals, and make appointments for medical and vocational evaluations. Prior to the program, most clients were able to conduct welfare-related business at their local job centers, rather than the hubs in Union Square, the south Bronx and downtown Brooklyn.

That, say advocates, is where the city runs into trouble. “Requiring disabled people to travel considerable distances…to receive basic services that a nondisabled person can receive locally is discriminatory,” said Richard Blum, a lawyer with Legal Aid. In addition to challenging the centralized centers, the lawsuit argues that both WeCare and HRA fail to make special accommodations for their disabled clients as mandated by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

While the case won’t go to court until October, advocates this week are seeking a temporary restraining order requiring the city to move the cases of Lovely v. Eggleston’s three named plaintiffs to their local job centers and to cease its automatic transfer of other cases to the WeCare centers. It also demands that WeCare clients be notified that they have the right to keep their cases at their local centers instead.

The city declined to comment on the open case.

Lovely marks the first formal challenge to an approach the city has billed as holistic, helpful and, in the words of Commissioner Eggleston, focused on “meeting people where they are at.”

The approach has so far drawn cautious optimism from advocates, who have long charged that the city’s assessment process routinely ignored disabilities and required people to work regardless of their ability to do so. The most infamous example came in 1999, when the city’s medical evaluator, HS Systems, sent a woman with a history of heart disease to work; she died of a heart attack while on her work experience assignment. Last year, a judge ruling on another HS Systems case called the company’s behavior “arbitrary and capricious.”

WeCare, by contrast, contracts out evaluation responsibilities to nonprofit agencies with a history of serving families in need.

But that doesn’t mean WeCare has translated into a kinder, gentler HRA, said Lisa Pearlstein, who oversees homeless legal services at City Bar Justice Center, a legal advocacy group. After WeCare evaluated one of the organization’s clients, the city classified the homeless single mother—whose medical history includes a permanent pacemaker, heart disease, asthma, and depression–“employable without limitations.” Pearlstein’s group plans to challenge the assessment at a welfare fair hearing.

Though she acknowledged the case could simply be one bad example, not a systemic flaw, Pearlstein said it recalled the days of old. “My understanding of this whole WeCare thing is that they’re supposed to help people,” said Pearlstein. “This is just like what HS Systems used to do.”

Tracie McMillan