For years now, maintenance workers for the D.C. Department of Public and Assisted Housing have had a problem getting recognition -- and not the kind that entails gold plaques and awards banquets.
Their problem was a basic one. Tenants, fearful of crime, were refusing to allow the work-clothes-clad maintenance staff into their apartments to make repairs. They just couldn't be convinced that the people at their doors were city employees.
Sometimes, in fact, suspicious residents have telephoned the police after maintenance workers have shown up at their doors. "They've stopped us several times," said Oscar Thomas, a foreman.
Ben Johnson, the acting chief of the department, set out to attack the identity crisis. What he came up with is a solution any former military man -- which Johnson is -- would probably love: uniforms.
So late last month, the department issued 1,000 blue uniforms, three shirts and one pair of trousers per worker, that bear the stenciled letters "DPAH" and the word "Staff" on the fronts and backs. It is issuing about 600 jumpsuits for women employees and nearly 3,000 coveralls -- blue for maintenance workers and white for plasterers and painters.
The uniforms, bought from a manufacturer in Maine, cost $51,750, out of a total annual budget of $31 million.
Johnson, who became acting chief in November, said the uniforms will help the 25,000 tenants who live in the District's 62 public housing complexes identify staff members.
He said maintenance workers hadn't been issued uniforms in six years, and most had worn out. "I thought tenants had a right to know who was knocking on their door," Johnson said.
As they repaired the front door to Regent House, a senior citizens' development on Connecticut Avenue NW, workers John Young III and Gabriel Ejide said the uniforms have made a big difference.
"People open the doors more readily," Thomas said.
Margaret Champion, president of the Regent House residents' council, said the uniforms give tenants in her building "more of a sense of safety and security. I think it's money well spent."
Not everyone who lives in public housing agrees.
Mary King, a tenant activist who lives in Edgewood Terrace, a senior citizens' development in Northeast, said she thinks the uniforms are a waste of money, particularly with the District facing a budget crisis.
"Wouldn't name tags accomplish the same thing?" King asked. "I'm sure they'd be cheaper."
Johnson, however, said photo ID cards, which department employees already have, are not enough, in part because residents have to get close to tell what they are.
"We have people looking through peepholes, and some of our senior citizens have poor eyesight and would have trouble making out the details," Johnson said.
Johnson is planning to take the uniforms a step further. He said he plans to order nameplates, like the type police wear, so residents could identify staff members by name for praise or criticism.
"I want specifics. I want names," Johnson said.