Social Insecurity

When Robert Rodriguez decided to turn whistleblower and raise a stink about abuses in his federal workplace, he became public enemy number one

Rodriguez discovered he genuinely liked the people who called to ask questions about their benefits, and he liked the workers in the TSC. Like other telephone reps, each day Rodriguez would arrive at a desk equipped with telephone headgear, a computer terminal, and an ACD box. The acronym stands for Automatic Call Dispensing; the machine records the length and time of day of telephone calls.

Rodriguez and his coworkers took telephone calls from all over the country for six or seven hours a day -- questions about lost cards or late checks, disability payments, death-of-spouse payments, a host of others -- some lengthy and difficult, others amusing.

A fluent Spanish speaker, Rodriguez recalls an elderly Cuban immigrant who telephoned to say she hadn't received her check. "We always wait three days after a call to send out a check, but I assume she was a little senile and didn't understand this. She wanted to know where the treasure was. In Spanish the word tesoro can mean both treasure and treasury, and I thought she meant treasury, as in main headquarters. I was saying, "Well, ma'am, the buildings are in Washington, D.C., and they're made of stone….' Finally I figured out what she meant."

Leonard Wheeler helped Rodriguez blow the whistle by filing formal allegations
Joshua Prezant
Leonard Wheeler helped Rodriguez blow the whistle by filing formal allegations
Federal cop Leslie Hall (right), joined by a parking lot security guard and a Social Security Administration worker, threatens to sue a photographer
Joshua Prezant
Federal cop Leslie Hall (right), joined by a parking lot security guard and a Social Security Administration worker, threatens to sue a photographer

In another case a Haitian man wanted to make a claim for black lung disease. Rodriguez recalls explaining two or three times that "even though he was black and suffering from lung cancer, he didn't qualify" for the government's relief to help those afflicted with the infamous coal miners' disease.

Despite these moments of levity, many of the questions about social security benefits are grindingly complicated. TSRs are equipped with about ten weeks of training and updated with hourlong weekly refreshers. A certain level of stress is inevitable. "Working on the phones is really work, the calls just keep coming in, it's unrelenting," Rodriguez explains. "Some people get something like psychological carpal tunnel syndrome. It can be exhausting unless you know how to handle it. You breathe. You stay calm."

For the first year or two on the job, Rodriguez says, he took pleasure not only in the work but in most of the people. As time passed he tried to keep his growing frustrations under control, to avoid causing trouble. He began participating in union activities. He even joined the Sunshine Club, a group whose job was to celebrate employee birthdays, organize functions, and boost workplace morale.

Ironically this last decision had just the opposite effect on Rodriguez.

Becoming president of the Sunshine Club late in 1996, he began to notice a group of people who, in his opinion, weren't shouldering their fair share of the work on the telephones. "[Some] people who tried to do things in the club used it as an excuse not to be on the telephones," he claims.

He also began noticing other abuses of the system, especially by some supervisors who, he says, were consistently paid for time they didn't work. Just as he had at the post office years earlier, Rodriguez set himself up as a kind of watchdog. He explains his self-appointed role this way: "Nobody was rushing to the Batmobile to combat crime, and I just got tired of seeing it."

In 1997 the restive Rodriguez began tracking the TSC supervisors who appeared to goof off the most. He kept a record of their time away from the office when he happened to spot them coming and going. Rodriguez even went so far as to trail one supervisor three times to see what she was doing, a venture he could undertake as a part-time employee.

According to Rodriguez, the supervisor, Lydia Canino, went to the Galleria Mall to shop and occasionally took her sister, who also works in the center, or another employee. "I counted her out [of the office] on 17 occasions between 1997 and 1999," Rodriguez claims. "Those were just the times I saw her." Rodriguez says she was on the clock during those times.

Joining Canino on Rodriguez's list was Georgia Hiteman, whom he marked as late to work by as much as two hours on 31 occasions. Each time, he says, he checked the sign-in log and discovered that she was seeking pay for the missed time.

Neither Canino nor Hiteman returned requests for interviews.

When Rodriguez reported this to his immediate supervisor, Don Funaro, and asked about other employees who were getting breaks, Funaro ignored him. So Rodriguez began to question a wider range of activities he judged as problems too. For example, he asked why Shivella Kinsler, a fellow TSR and old friend of Funaro's, was allowed to work a second job while on the clock, when other workers were answering phones.

According to several employees, Kinsler supervised members of a private security business who worked in the federal building downtown. They say they heard her on the phone working out scheduling problems with them, or saw her "doing paperwork from that other job while she was sitting at her desk," in the words of one fellow TSR.

Kinsler did not respond to a request for an interview.

Throughout this period Rodriguez avoided going to the center's manager, Susan Madina. He says he wanted to avoid causing trouble for her. "She was the only supervisor trying to make the place better for us, but she just didn't have a lot of street smarts. They could get away with stuff on her, and if I made a stink, it could have come down on her." Rodriguez still regards Madina as "the most humane, compassionate, use-whatever-adjective-you-want-to-use manager I've ever seen."

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