A nine-year Department of Human Resources employee was assigned to the agency's Congress Heights center last April to supervise clearing up a blacklog of welfare applications.
Nancy Beehler, 47, said she found welfare workers at the center, located at 21 Atlantic St. SW, ignoring schedules, taking 2-and 3-hour lunch breaks, treating applications in a rude or off-handed manner and causing applicants to wait longer than the court-ordered 45 day limit for their papers to be processed.
In a U.S. District Court hearing on contempt charges brought against DHR because of the welfare backlog, Beehler testified yesterday that she was harrassed, denied support by her superiors, disobeyed and finally hanged in effigy by workers before she quit the center five months later.
"They let me know they would get rid of me no matter what it took," said Beehler, a social service supervisor. "My attempts to correct the situation at Congress Heights failed."
Beehler, who is white, said outside the courtroom that she did not believe the largely black staff's reaction to her was racially motivated. It was caused by resentment of her "leadership," she said.
The city Corporation Counsel's Office began questioning DHR employees before Judge Aubrey E. Robinson yesterday to defend the agency against contempt motions filed by Neighborhood Legal Services Program lawyers.
Hundreds of poor families seeking public assistance to buy food, pay rent or get medical attention have suffered because DHR has not processed their applications in the 45 days ordered by Robinson in 1974, the legal aid lawyers contended in a motion filed in the case last month.
Suspended DHR director Joseph P. Yeldell was not at the hearings, but was represented by his personal attorney, Gary Myers. Myers' questions to witnesses appeared to try to show that the backlog was the fault of Yeldell's subordinates or of conditions outside the department, such as the city hiring freeze.
Testimony by DHR welfare employees at three branches in Southeast and Southwest, where most welfare families are concentrated, depicted the applications system as confused, inconsistent and unsatisfactory to both workers and applicants.
There never was a time when I could sit down and complete an application without interruption" from telephone calls or other duties, said Bertha C. Smoot, acting supervisor at 1418 Good Hope Rd. SE.
Smoot said she did not believe that her office could ever "get even" that is, process all applications on time. When Judge Robinson asked how many workers would be needed to accomplish this, Smoot ansered "I'm not certain we'd have the facilities to house them."
Welfare employees often work in unventilated, poorly lighted quarters that lack heat in winter and air conditioning in summer, the workers testified. They said they face an endless stream of needy, sometimes irritable applicants who have trouble comprehending the procedure. Occassionally the supply of forms that are vital to the process runs out, one supervisor testified.
At some centers, workers specialize in food stamps, medicaid or welfare applications, while others have workers assigned to handle all three, according to the testimony. Case workers generally determine their own priorities, witnesses said.
"I processed applications but left other work undone," said Beverly E. Whatley, a worker at 2818 Alabama Ave. SE. "With applications, I'm dealing with people who don't have anything."
Judge Robinson said Whatley's concern was "sort of what the court had in mind" when he issued the 1974 injunction. Other workers said they saw delays in applications because priority was given to food stamp recertification and other tasks.
NLSP attorney Gerald Von Korff, questioning whether applicants were sometimes turned away and denied the opportunity to apply for welfare, received consistently negative answers from the witnesses.
Employees used their own cars to deliver supplies, or were shifted constantly to cover staff shortages, supervisors testified. Section Chief Juanita Cauley, of the Good Hope Road center, said she was always "robbing Peter to pay Paul" with staff movements.
Applications were sometimes "strung out along the hallways, sitting on steps, anywhere there was standing room." Cauley said. They sometimes "became irritated and left" without appling, she said.
At least part of the blame for the backlog lies with the hierarchy of the payments assistance administration, DHR's welfare branch, according to Beehler. She said she was denied the adequate staffing that officials had promised, and could not get officials' support in bringing personnel actions against disobedient workers.
Beehler also testified under Myers' questioning that the 843-case backlog resented in a December heairng on the contempt motion was inaccurate. Tabulation of delayed applications is cumulative, Beehler said, and many cases are recorded as delinquent after they have been processed.
Acting DHR director Albert P. Russo and other agency officials, who appeared in court yesterday, are expected to testify later this week, as is Yeldell.