For seven years, Bernadette Rodriguez spent her days reviewing claims from disabled people across the state. It was her job to help decide whether they qualified for Social Security benefits.
The work was stressful; Rodriguez, a small woman with coiffed, graying hair, came to the state’s Disability Determination Services from a social work background. She says she had to close 12-13 claims each week; a single claim can be several hundred pages long. As a senior adjudicator, she handled some of the toughest cases that came before the agency.
“We had people calling us, saying, ‘They’re taking our health care away,’” she says. “Some of those would have to go to the top of the list, and you would have to fight for them.”
Now, Rodriguez is suing DDS, a state agency funded completely by the federal government, for discrimination, retaliation and violation of the Whistleblower Protection Act. She claims her employers discriminated against her with “threats, reprisals and retaliation” for her own disability, major depression disorder.
“I’d go to work and get beat up,” Rodriguez says. “They made me feel horrible. They made me feel like I was just incompetent.”
But the problems at DDS go deeper. By many accounts, the agency’s mission to help some of the state’s most vulnerable citizens is caught in a bureaucratic nightmare. Angelica Martinez, another former adjudicator, compares the managerial incompetency to placing employees on a football field with a soccer ball and a tennis racket, and then telling them to “play the game.”
“They were never consistent,” says Martinez, who retired from DDS last August.
Much of that frustration first emerged in a mass grievance filed in February 2011 through the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Fifteen DDS employees signed the grievance.
Rodriguez says many of them were older adjudicators who, like her, had disabilities of their own.
The grievance alleged “a pattern of unfair claims processing and non-equitable treatment” and requested that “employees be allowed to voice concerns to management without retaliation.”
“Certain people were being reviewed much more frequently,” Rodriguez says. “People were starting to crack.”
One of them was Anthony Barela, a now-retired adjudicator who suffered spine and vision injuries after a 2005 car accident. DDS put employees like him and Rodriguez on performance action plans when they weren’t processing enough claims to meet their quotas.
But both say other adjudicators were held to different standards.
“If anybody would complain and raise a concern, they would put you on a plan and shut you up,” Barela tells SFR.
In April 2011, Rodriguez wrote to Sen. Tom Udall, D-NM, asking that the federal Office of Inspector General investigate DDS.
“Three dear coworkers have died from the stressors of our work and the pressure on us by this inept Administration,” she wrote. Barela took his concerns to then-US Rep. Martin Heinrich; both he and Rodriguez also filed complaints with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Rodriguez’ complaints center around taking time off to care for her dying husband, who lost an eight-year battle with colon cancer last year. She says DDS put her on performance review plans, failing to take into account her family medical leave.
DDS did account for that leave, according to a letter written by Rodriguez’ former supervisor, Dana Lucero. But even Lucero, who retired from DDS two years ago, admits staffers often felt they weren’t given “a fair shake.”
“I’m not sure we took the right way all the time,” she says. “The stresses of the job make it such that it’s a difficult place to work, period.”
Management has made some attempts to improve the situation. AFSCME Council 18 spokesman Miles Conway says the state has tried to ease the workload. And, in a June 2011 email to staffers, Ralph Vigil—the director of the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, which oversees DDS, but falls under the jurisdiction of the state’s Public Education Department—wrote that he planned to meet with management about “avoiding perceptions about being overbearing.”
Vigil says DVR responds to every staff complaint and works closely with SSA.
“We’ve had a challenging and negative element,” he says, adding that there’s no need for “additional alarm.”
But Rodriguez, who left DDS in January, says the situation remains dismal. Attrition rates in New Mexico’s DDS are around 19 percent—roughly double the national average—and the staff has shrunk from 106 in 2010 to 88 in October 2012, according to Social Security Administration records.
“Has there been a problem with attrition and losing workers? Yes,” Conway says. “Have management tried to address the shortages? Yes. Are those numbers approaching the level [at which caseload quotas] are not reachable? Yes.”
Last March, federal authorities looked into DDS employees’ complaints about a hostile workplace and found most of them unfounded, with one exception: that DDS did not have enough staff to handle the workload.
The issue is particularly thorny because no one seems to know who’s in charge.
Udall, for instance, referred the matter to the OIG, which sent it to New Mexico State Auditor Hector Balderas’ office. Balderas in turn sent it to PED Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera and New Mexico Attorney General Gary King, writing that “the root of all the confusion as to who has authority over these employees and these issues” stemmed from the fact that they were state employees paid with federal dollars.
To DDS employees, the fact that a Social Security agency answers to a state education agency is the epitome of a broken system. As Martinez puts it, “Nobody knows what to do with us.”