ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Some caretakers for disabled New Yorkers say they've been harassed and punished for making complaints about potentially hazardous situations at state facilities.
At least two are pursuing federal lawsuits alleging their complaints prompted supervisors to retaliate with trumped-up accusations of wrongdoing that forced them to be placed on paid leave. One 17-year state employee says he's currently on at least his sixth such leave, totaling more than a year and a half of his career.
"As soon as you challenge them on anything, you're sort of finished," said Jeff Monsour, a 55-year-old from Lake Luzerne who has been at home since March on his current leave, continuing to draw his $41,000 salary.
Over the years, Monsour has made complaints about the close proximity of a drinking-water well to septic tanks, a fly-infested cake, high levels of radon gas, a pedophile allowed at a children's costume party and falsified fire drill reports, which came a year before four residents of a group home died in a fire.
Monsour's latest complaint, about too few staff on outings with people with criminal histories including sex abuse, resulted in what he says was a false accusation that he used derogatory language against one of those men under his supervision at a Burger King.
That accusation is currently being investigated. Monsour said previous allegations against him — arguing with a co-worker, pushing a client, harassing a co-worker and an improper takedown of a client who was smashing windows — were all determined to be unfounded.
"It's a management style of threat and intimidation," said attorney Robert Sadowski, who filed the federal lawsuits. He said he gets at least one inquiry a month with similar complaints and recently deposed some retired state caretakers who no longer have to fear speaking up.
New York's Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, serving 130,000 disabled clients with programs and housing, declined to discuss individual personnel complaints, or the federal lawsuits filed three years ago. Both are heading toward trial next year.
"OPWDD places employees accused of abuse of an individual in our care on administrative leave during an investigation, in accordance with state regulations, to ensure the safety and security of the people we serve," spokeswoman Jennifer O'Sullivan said.
She noted that there are currently 220 state caretakers out on paid leave, out of about 20,000 total personnel and administrators at state homes and services for the disabled.
New York has statutory whistleblower protections that require showing a worker wouldn't have been punished except for speaking up. A union spokesman said they're seldom invoked. Sadowski said they are difficult cases to make in state claims court.
Another state caretaker who filed a federal lawsuit, Jane Taylor, of Glens Falls, contended she faced retaliation for complaints about a group home leader regularly insulting and psychologically abusing a client.
"I was told to mind my own business," she said.
Taylor said she was subsequently "written up" for alleged misbehaviors including falsely reporting an incident, failing to follow protocol and then was put on leave after notifying the agency she had retained a lawyer. She retired last August after 31 years at the agency and its predecessor, fearing efforts to fire her.
"It's sad because it's a human services field and they treat people very inhumanely," she said.
Another employee, Andria Berger, of Broadalbin, recently left OPWDD after a decadelong career, citing retaliation for previous complaints and anger over the death of a client who choked on a sausage sandwich that he wasn't supposed to have.
Berger had filed complaints over assignments to group homes without adequate training about medications, fire drills and choking, and the absence of promised agency monitoring of excessive overtime. She said retaliation included back-to-back double shifts, having her seniority ignored and getting assignments without the training to do them successfully.
Federal judges in 2014 dismissed the court claims by Monsour and Taylor against OPWDD, ruling the agency was immune from such claims, but allowed the suits to continue against two administrators for alleged First Amendment retaliation.
"This is a pattern of behavior," said Harvey Weisenberg, a former Democratic state Assemblyman whose disabled adult son lives in a state-authorized group home. He said some families who have complained about their loved one's treatment have been threatened with taking them back, which they're incapable of doing.
Legislation awaiting Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo's signature would require OPWDD to identify the causes of chronic job vacancies and high turnover among caregivers, including nonprofits. Monsour blames state management, saying he may be the only whistleblower who has stayed.