Michael McDonald, 27, injured his leg in a fall while he was at work for the U.S. Postal Service in July, 1976.
Unable to work or collect his regular wages, he was supposed to get monthly payments from the federal government's workmen's compensation program beginning last September.
For about five months, he was unable to get the money or, despite repeated efforts to find out why he wasn't getting it. As a result, McDonald was evicted from his Falls Church apartment and forced to live with friends or in his vain. "I almost lost the van, too," he says, " and that's when I really got mad."
McDonald finally got a lump sum check for $3,000 in back payments due him from the fovernment, but only after an irate visit to his congressman and a three-day sit-in with a bag-full of copies of his medical records at the office that was supposed to dispense his monthly checks.
McDonald's is but one of countless tales by U.S. employees of frustrations, of getting the "run-around," of "incompetence" and sometimes rudeness at the hands of the Washington office of the Labor Department's Office of Federal Employee Compensation (OFEC), at 666 11th St. NW. The complaining employees usually are at the lower end of the federal pay scale, those who are most likely to be injured on the job.
Their woes can be read in hundreds of files accumulating in the offices of members of Congress who represent the Washington area.
For some of the employees, their brush with the OFEC is an exasperating example of bureaucratic ineffiniency and inertia.
Susan D.Patton, of Alexandria, says she tried for three months to get either money or information about her claim. "One time (Wednesday, Jan 19) the phone rang 112 times," all that day!"
For some, the experience has meant not only frustration, but financial panic, unpaid debts, postponed surgery and even a few mortgage foreclosures, according to spokesmen for various congressional offices.
The claimants often find themselves up against what one described as a bureaucratic "stone wall" behind which their records are lost and where claimants are unable to talk to the same person twice.
The government tells them that the problems seem to be the result of personnel shortages , inadequate training for what staff there is and outmoded procedures in OFEC.
The congressional committee charged with overseeing the program is not sure of the extent of the problem, according to a spokesman, because it is busy with other, even more pressing matters (mine safety, youth camp safety) and cannot hold hearings on the matter for "several months."
The complainants' eligibility for the payments is uncontested in some cases, while in others it may be questionable. The issue is not eligibility but, as Rep. Herbert E.Harris II (D-Va.), said recently, it is that people's "telephone calls are not returned, their letters not answered and their claims are not accepted or rejected within a reasonable length of time."
Even a congressional office has little clout in storming the OFEC barricades, according to Nancy Barbour, an aide to Harris, one of several in his office who has handled OFEC complaints. "We just can't get through to the local office," she said. "We contact the Labor Department instead."
In the thick of files on her desk, many of the responses from the Labor Department were the same form letter, stating that her request for information had been forwarded to the local compensation office for a response.
"Here's one man who was promised an answer within 10 days," she said. "That was in December, and he still hasn't heard.
The influx of complaints prompted Rep. Gladys Spellman (D-Md.) to take a personal tour of the Washington office. She described the situation as a "mess". One claimant waited more than a year for a response and then received a check for $8,000 - money he should have been getting all along, her office reports. At least three other cases have been pending since the fall of 1975.
The office of Rep. Bob Daniels (R-Va.) has had "about 2,000 complaints over the last three or four years, usually from the shipyards," said a Daniels aide, Thad Murray. Daniels' district includes the Norfolk Naval Shipyard.
Many are from people with hearing loss, who are able to continue working or who get compensation from other government source, Murray said, but many are victims of a lung condition that prevents them from working and requires specialized care.
"In some cases they've been off the payroll for six to eight months and they're getting no money, or they may be getting Civil Service retirement benefits in the meantime, which amounts to less than they should be getting."
Donald Frederick, director of the District office of OFEC, could not be reached for comment. Everett Jennings, acting director of the progam's national office at the Labor Department, declined comment.
Charles M.Angell, administrator of the program's regional office in Philadephia, which supervises the Washington office, said the program is the result of an increasingly work load and an indequately trained, too-small staff with a high rate turniver.
The office averages 500 pieces of mail per day, he said, but there are only two people to open it and and channel it to the right place. The office has a total staff of 43, including some part-workers, he said.
"We try to get claims out in 30 days, and this happens in many cases where they are not complex and (where) all the information is in," he said. He estimates the work load is increasing by about 2,000 to 3,000 pieces of mail per year.
Sometimes, he said, the claims are incomplete when submitted and the follow-ups take time.
"We have set up special units to handle the older work," he said. "And we're trying to get a special phone line with a recording to tell the caller we'll return the call."
There are proposals in Congress for "more bodies, more funding," he said. "but what effect the new presidential initiative to cut back the size of federal agencies will have, we don't know."