ABOUT-FACE ON WECARE CENTRALIZATION

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In a striking policy reversal, the city’s Human Resources Administration (HRA) announced early this month that it will close three controversial hub centers created to provide job training and other social services for disabled people who are part of its Wellness Comprehensive Assessment, Rehabilitation and Employment (WeCare) program.

The city opened the hubs a year ago, claiming that they would more efficiently provide specialized services to WeCare’s disabled clients. But advocates for the disabled sued, arguing that the move to centralized locations violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

As reported in City Limits Weekly #533, U.S. District Court Judge Laura Taylor Swain ruled that the city discriminated against the disabled by forcing them to travel to the specialized centers in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx without giving them the option of remaining at their neighborhood social service office. The hub system “constitutes a hardship” and “clearly violates the mandate that persons with disabilities be given the opportunity to participate in mainstream services,” Judge Swain wrote.

At the time, HRA and the city’s law department said they were considering an appeal. But on May 3rd, the corporation counsel’s office reversed itself, sending a letter to Judge Swain indicating HRA would be closing the three hub offices within 90 days, returning to the previous system of clients being serviced by one of 29 local community offices. Two days later, HRA confirmed the move. “This was a difficult decision made more difficult by the excellent work of our dedicated staff in launching the program,” Commissioner Verna Eggleston said in a press release. In just over a year, she claimed, the hub centers had made 80,000 referrals and placed almost 1,400 people in jobs.

While happy that the disabled will no longer have to journey to distant neighborhoods to get services, disability advocates are now scrambling to ensure that staffers will be in place at the community offices when the hubs are closed.

Legal Aid Society Staff Attorney Kathleen Kelleher, who represented the disabled in the lawsuit, said her agency was especially concerned that WeCare clients would be notified of the changes in an effective and timely manner. Indeed, said Freya Riel, a policy analyst with the City Council’s General Welfare Committee, city officials don’t know how many WeCare clients will be impacted by the hub closings and have offered only vague documentation on the utility of the program. Kelleher suggested that the city should also notify community groups and elected officials about the hub closings.

One of the unions representing WeCare’s workers (Local 1180 of the Communications Workers of America) says it met with HRA in mid-May and was assured that there would be no layoffs and that staffers will be redeployed to the local offices.

But returning to the way the program once worked may not be simple. With personnel reassigned and office space re-allocated for the past year, neighborhood offices may not be able to accommodate the new additions.

“The local centers will be overtaxed,” said Eddie Gates, assistant director of the Clerical Division of the NYC Clerical-Administrative Employees Union (Local 1549 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees), who attended the meeting with HRA.

According to the City Council General Welfare Committee, WeCare is the city’s most expensive job training-oriented program, serving approximately 45,000 clients over the past year at a cost of $67 million.

–Jillian Jonas