A woman who was forced to quit her job because working with poisons made her sick testified in federal court last week that she applied for welfare after a year of unemployment. But it was nearly five months before she received any relief, Ann Lewis told U.S. District Judge Aubrey E. Robinson.
"I asked for financial assistance and food for my child," Lewis said. Her husband was in a mental hospital and she was living on borrowed funds, having "used up the little money I had," she testified.
Lewis said she repeatedly telephoned and visited the Department of Human Resources' Congress Heights office in the months after her application. She got no help until she began court action after learning that federal law entitled her to a decision in 45 days.
It was a familiar scene for Judge Robinson. Two years ago, he had ordered DHR to comply with the federally established time limit on processing welfare applications. In four days of hearings last week on contempt charges against the department, Robinson recalled that he had been "startled and incredulous" in 1974 to learn how inefficiently DHR's welfare branch was managed.
Testimony from numerous DHR officials, including Joseph P. Yeldell, suspended director of the agency, amounted largely to buck passing, with each witness denying ultimate responsibility for the continuing backlog.
Lower level employees said they were overworked, shutt off from promotions, confined to cramped uncomfortable working quarters and generally demoralized.
Managers and supervisors blamed higher-ups for lack of support. They complained of disobedient and incompetent workers in their command.
And Yeldell said he was helpless to clear up the backlog because the City Council and the mayor just did not give him enough funds to properly staff the welfare offices.
Yeldell said he first learned that the pending applications were building up last October, a month before he was suspended as director for alleged nepotism and conflicts of interest.
In four hours of testimony under questioning by his personal attorney Gary R. Myers, Yeldell said he dutifully reported DHR's non-compliance to the judge, despite protests from his top welfare aide Bertrell Hallum.
Hallum, who had testified that his requests for additional staff went unanswered, acknowledged that he wrote an October memo telling Yeldell that hundreds of applications were pending and warning that the information should be guarded.
Yeldell said he was strapped by budget reductions, a city hiring freeze and only partial success in attempts to train non-professional workers to handle welfare applications. "I was limited to the staff available to me," Yeldell said. "I couldn't hire anybody new." At one time the Council reduced his welfare staff by more than 100 positions, Yeldell testified.
The judge, who appeared testy and flabbergasted at some of the testimony, questioned Yeldell closely on whether he made the best attempts to meet the court order.
"At no time have you said (to the court) that all your proposals were contingent on budget matters over which you had no control," Robinson told Yeldell.
"This is not some judge issuing an order," Robinson declared, "but what was mandated by the Congress of the United States." He said DHR had allowed the 1974 order to "become a personal vendetta, involving Neighborhood Legal Services Program (the attorneys who filed the 1974 suit) and your department."
DHR staff had the additional burden. Yeldell said, of trying to remove thousands of ineligible persons from the welfare rolls. Assigning staff on special projects to remove errumeous payments caused a conflict of priorities, he said.
"One of the essential elements (to solving the problem) will have to be the infusion of new staff," Yeldell said.
At the end of the hearings, which Robinson said he held in an effort to "get this cleared up once an for all," the judge was left with a nearly impossible decision, according to the closing arguments of three lawyers involved:
The victims of the delayed applications, legal services lawyer Gerald Von Korff argued, are destitute applicants such as Ann Lewis . Von Kroff's December contempt motion sought immediate payments to applicants who had not received a decision in 45 days. "What has been proved is not impossibility, but that the department did not try hard enough," Von Korff said. "If ever there was a case where contempt was shown, this is such a case." If necessary, the judge should hold the mayor and City Council responsible, he said.
Myers characterized Yeldell as "a man who has made every legitimate attempt in good faith to comply" with Robinson's order. He urged the judge to consider the limitations if a federal court to enter the administrative process in attempting to enforce compliance with the law.
Assistant Corporation Counsel Mellie Nelson conceded DHR's non-compliance with the law and Robinson's injunction, but argued that it was "neither willful nor intentional. There are no simple, attainable and immediate resolutions," Nelson said. "A myriad of factors contributed" to the non-compliance, including lack of staff, poor morale, insufficient training and budgetary problems, she said.
Robinson called for written reports from the attorneys involved so that he can issue a ruling before Jan. 31. He concluded the hearings, however with a prediction that "this case won't end at the end of this month, or at the end of this year."