Water from a broken utility pipe flowed ankle high through the welfare office waiting room in southeast Washington, cascading over the feet of women and their children as they tiptoed onto telephone books strewn across the floor.
As the water swirled over the dusty linoleum, swishing in and out of the smelly restrooms nearby, social workers and office suspervisors mopped and swept, splashed around with wilting welfare forms, questioned and counseled their clients.
After the pipe was repaired maintenance men discovered that the office ceiling was "sweating" and climbed onto the roof to find it covered with two feet of water. They drained it, and counted the staff workers inside as lucky so far.
"If I were a weak person, I probably would have gone off the deep end my first week here," said Perry W. Fralin, 28, a social worker for 13 months at the welfare office in the Congress Heights section of southeast. Fralin had been a counselor at Forest Haven, the city's institution for retarded youths, before requesting a transfer to the welfare office.
"I have two master's degress, out I'm still at grade GS 5 (earning about $11,000 a year)". said Franlin whose welfare clients sometimes make more money than he does.
With an educational background in business and social work. Fralin said his interest was in making jobs programs connected with the welfare operation more effective.
"You know how it is when you have an idea or a plan and you just can't wait to see if it will work? Well, that's how I was when I first got here. Nothing turned out to be like I thought it would. Just this morning I was telling (a staff worker) that I was about ready to stop pushing, and cool out because I'd just about had it."
By most accounts, Fralin is one of Congress Heights' outstanding workers. His supervisors say he is good with clients and is able to cope with caseloads that sometimes involve up to 600 welfare clients.
However, what is happening to him and other social workers is a matter of growing concern among administrators of the human resource agencies in Washington.
But what is happening to him and other social workers is a matter of growing concern among administrators of the human resource agencies in Washington. A counselor's discomfort is clearly reflected in a decline in the efficiency of a welfare office, and if welfare does not work at the neighborhood welfare center, it does not work at all.
"A major problem we have is making people feel good about their jobs," said William Barr, head of the District's Social Rehabilitation Administration (SRA).
Barr and other top city welfare officials say that increasingly, social workers are leaving the public welfare field "burned out" by continuous work in stifling environments and pressured bureaucracies that offer little advancement as they deal with troubled residents whose plights rarely seem to change.
Administrators themselves say they feel trapped by an overwhelming amount of paper work, which causes their staffs to regard management as out of touch with the realities of providing service to those in need.
In its extreme, burnout - which usually manifests itself in apathy and emotional callousness towards a client - can have serious physical consequences such as dizziness, trembling, headaches, stomach aches, hypertension and nervous breakdowns. Burnout can also result in heart attacks, strokes and alcohol and drug abuse.
Welfare workers point to the Department of Human Resource's personnel/caseload balance to explain how this situation has come about. This year, for example, the city has 262 workers determining welfare eligibility and 83 others counseling over 200,000 different residents who receive welfare and a variety of other social services and will make at least two trips to the welfare office.
"It's just impossible to serve that many people," said one caseworker. who say her caseload averages about 450 clients.
"You pick out who you figure you can do at least a little something for and for the rest, you can just talk to them in a certain way that lets them get the message so they stop calling for help so much."
Some morale problems had been caused by a general freeze on promotions and hiring during the past three years. Those restrictions have recently been case somewhat.
"What really speeds up 'burnout' is a lack of new blood." said George Roby, head of the social services division, within the SRA. "We haven't seen any new blood in here since 1974."
Not only does the welfare office handle traditional welfare programs such as food stamps. Medicaid and public assistance checks, but a variety of protective services for young and elderly persons.
"There's a lot of tension in this business." aid Helen Robinson, a nurse who examines employees within the SRA. "Nine out of 10 people who see me have high blood pressure or are on some kind of medication. You get a lot of complaints about dizziness and migraine headaches," she said.
"My hands still shake uncontrollably," said one social worker, who had been transferred from the Congress Heights office to a less hectic welfare office. He asked not to be identified.
"It's much better now, oh yeah, but at the time it was like it was spreading, like a seizure. My doctor told me if I did'nt change jobs I could kill myself."
According to Betty Queens, head of the city's Bureau of Family Services, an increase in the last couple of years in departmental sick leave, absenteeism, transfers and early retirement are indications that burnout is becoming a more serious problem.
For Perry Fralin and the others at Congress heights the problems begin as soon as they enter their office, which is in the old Atlantic movie house. The building was vacant and condemned before the Department of Human Resources leased it, put a desk and folding chairs in the lobby partitioned the auditorium into a maze of cubicles, put an assistant manager in the projection booth looking out over the cubicles, and brought public welfare to 21 Atlantic St. SE.
"Sometimes I come in and the lobby is cloudy with cigarette smoke," said Elizabeth Reynolds, a social worker for 12 years."We don't have windows so we get zero ventilation. Some of our clients have communicable diseases, like TB, and it gets mighty uncomfortable," she said.
Lois Thompson, the ever pleasant office manager, says simply and with a smile. "It takes a very special person to work here."
For the past three years, workers have been scheduled to move into a more spacious facility that includes a play area for children and a lounge for the social workers. The move is now scheduled for December.
Meanwhiel, inside the Congress Heights office rows of blank-faced clients wait for someone to descend from the mass of cubicles to call their names.
"We have been staffed and financed for crisis and demand services," said Queens, the head of the Bureau of Family Services.
"The effort put into helping people is to see some real change in their lives. With crisis and demand, you don't have that satisfaction. You put a patch on someone's strife, knowing in your heart that the person will be back."
Lois Thompson, the Congress Heights manager, tells this story:
"I remember a worker getting a call in a closet, the gas burners on her stove were on, and it was about 100 degrees in her house. it took four hours for the worker to get the police, hospital, inspector and everyone involved," she recalled.
"The worker's evening was ruined, but she went to bed feeling relieved that she'd been able to do something. When she got back to the office the next day, she found a message saying the woman she'd helped the day before was now back home, back in the closet, with the burners on again. Somehow, we try to bounce back," Thompson said.
Structural environment and demanding clients aside, it is the District of Columbia's changing welfare bureaucracy - which a few months ago lost former director Joseph P. Yeldell amid published reports of cronyism and mismanagement - that has confused and frustrated others.
With the dubious distinction of being the most error-prone welfare system in the nation, the District's public assistance programs are either under federal court orders or the eyes of federal and local investigators.
At times, administrators says, pressure to "stay out of jail" by meeting federal court-ordered dealines and other regulations had made the bureaucracy cold and insensitive to the concerns of staff workers.
It was this past February when Perry Fralin, for example, after spending a year establishing himself as somewhat of a caseload trouble shooter, requested what is called a desk audit - which is something like a merit test, where an observer checks to see just how much and how well an employee is doing.
"I have the same responsibilities as a GS 11," Fralin wrote, hoping such a test would result in a promotion, now that some departmental restrictions on personnel advancement had been lifted.
Fralin got no desk audit - and became frustrated. The procedure for requesting promotions no longer involved audits, he later learned, but at the time hardly anyone knew what the new way was. Fralin complained, filed grievances and wrote to his congressman who represents his home district in West Virginia and the District's non-voting congressional delegate, Walter Fauntroy.
During all of this, Lousie Yochum, one of the five supervisors Fralin had during his 13 months at Congress Heights, wrote that he was extraordinary, "a conscientious worker who shows sincere interest in his work and a desire to do his work well." She recommended that he be promoted to a GS 7.
In the end, though, a dejected Fralin had requested time off, which was refused, and he was eventually charged by the office coordinator with being AWOL - absent without leave.
"It's such a poor feeling to feel you work for nothing," Fralin said of his experience. "There's nothing to build morale . . ."
"I did have a client," Fralin continued, "a woman, a Hanafi Muslim, who was disgusted with the system and very upset because we could not help her. When it was time for her to leave, she didn't have bus fare. I had 50 cents in my pockets - to last me for the next two days, no joke - but I gave it to her.
"You know what she told me? She said I can't even thank you for this. That hurt me, but after a while I started to understand where she was coming from.
"Anyway, she called me back a few days later and said thanks, and that made me feel real good inside."
It was in October, 1975, when Oliver Downs, the office coordinator who charged Fralin with being AWOL. first was assigned to the Congress Heights welfare office. The person he replaced had been hanged in effigy by staff workers and her car had been vandalized apparently by some clients.
"She had walked out into the waiting room and toldthe people to shut up," recalled Downs, a 20-year veteran of the District's welfare system. "You just don't say that to those sister out there, no siree."
When he came to the center that October, there were 570 welfare applications pending from the past April. Two months later. Downs was found in contempt of court by a federal judge in a decision that now mandates processing welfare applications within 45 days.
"Man, I'll tell you," began Downs, as he leaned back and patted his stomach like a Texas banker. He is from Fort Worth, Tex. "I used to come in here and they'd have lines around the corner, and caseworkers would be sitting around here acting like the Great God Damn, drinking coffee and reading the paper," he said.
"HEW was sending those microscopes around looking at every 10th case file then saying we had a 50 per cent error rate - and they would be right, because mainly we have a lot of untrained people in here because we can't afford anything else. Then they'd say you got to clean it up now or else lose $3.5 million in matching federal funds - and that's when the game gets tough.
"A weak person can't work here." Downs said, shaking his head. "I mean as hard as I try not to I still sometimes go home and snatch up a drink.
"Fralin? A good man. A hard worker, but if I was in his position being young and talented, I'd flood this city with 171s (job application forms). There are a lot of people with similar backgrounds who want to move ahead, who want promotions, and for them I say so into another field. The system just does not have the money for them."
"I can empathize with him (Fralin)", Downs said. "In fact, he reminds me of myself when I was his age . . . started out as a conselor at the Children's Center, full of ideas, and now here I am . . ."
Downs, who is a GS 11, figures he should be a GS 15, which is what most coordinators are. Since he is the childhood schoolmate and good friend of Bert Hallum, head of the District's Public Assistance Administration, the boss, he believes charges of cronyism would crop up if he was moved into one of the dwindling and hard-fought-for upper Gs positions.
"I hate to tell a person you can't be promoted, but like (Albert P. Russo, director of the Department of Human Resources) tell us, "You're lucky to have a job, nobody asked you to be a public servant, you're supposed to be dedicated."
"If anyone should have low morale, it's me," Fralin said. "But you just go ahead, you know, do your duties, although if you kick a dog too long sooner or later he'll turn around and bite."