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

In late October 1998, his fight with Funaro came to a head. Rodriguez took a 15-minute break -- unauthorized by Funaro -- and the supervisor nailed him for it, filing a reprimand and docking him 15 minutes' pay. Almost immediately Rodriguez filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claiming unfair treatment. The complaint would take a year and a half to be resolved, in favor of Rodriguez, who later received a $3.15 check for the docked time.

Despite his concerns Rodriguez says he was still fundamentally happy at work -- happy enough to become a full-time employee. But his attitude took a turn for the worse in February 1999, when Karen Shupler replaced his old boss, Susan Madina, as the new TSC manager in Fort Lauderdale.

Arriving from a smaller Social Security Administration office in North Miami, Shupler brought with her a reputation for toughness, say employees, and a plaque which would prove fortuitous in the mind of Rodriguez. The plaque read: La Rubia Peligrosa, recalls Rodriguez. The dangerous blonde.

The unmarked home of the Fort Lauderdale Teleservice Center's 130 employees
Joshua Prezant
The unmarked home of the Fort Lauderdale Teleservice Center's 130 employees

Rodriguez says he gave Shupler time to get settled, and then -- because Supervisor Funaro wouldn't stop the problem -- he decided to let the new TSC manager know that some people were stealing time from her office or working second jobs on the clock. But Shupler, he says, did not take kindly to his efforts to police his colleagues and supervisors. None of these lesser transgressions -- or the apparent snubs by Funaro and Shupler -- appeared to bother Rodriguez or his colleagues as much as the case of Ty Keon, a blind TSR hired by Shupler in July 1999. Keon worked at the center for almost four months, the last months of his life. Only 32 years old, he suffered from a disease that still has not been specifically revealed to employees. In all likelihood, they believe, the disease was AIDS or hepatitis, and it killed Keon, but not before he left evidence of it everywhere.

Keon was unable to control his bowels and accidentally defecated several times in the break room. He also defecated or vomited on the way to the restrooms, in the men's restroom, and even in the women's restroom, where he rushed occasionally in an attempt to reach the nearest toilet, according to several employees.

Those employees, speaking on condition of anonymity, gathered at an International House of Pancakes restaurant to talk about the problem and to describe their fears. "It was messy," explained one woman, "and it happened a lot. They said it happened only a few times, but it happened more than that. And some of us helped Ty. I even saw [Rodriguez] carry him one time when he fell down."

According to these employees, Rodriguez sought to make Keon's case a cause, as well. He was astounded that the TSC's management would allow Keon to endanger other employees and would offer no concrete assurance why employees should remain unconcerned. Rodriguez accused manager Shupler of trying to shroud the problem in secrecy.

In December 1999, about three weeks after Keon died, all 130 employees of the Fort Lauderdale TSC were asked to gather. Shupler introduced a state health official and one of the SSA's senior lawyers, who had flown in from Atlanta for the meeting.

Employees were told that anyone who feared exposure to an infectious disease or blood-borne pathogen could make an appointment with a medical doctor and have tests performed. They were told that the SSA would pay for these tests with no questions asked.

When a TSR named Richard LaFleur raised his hand and asked what had killed Keon, several employees recall, SSA officials ignored him.

Employee concerns were so persistent that four months later Shupler sought to stanch anxieties by sending an e-mail to the entire office, reiterating the offer of free medical tests. "The members of the management staff, as well as our [union] team, are working together to provide all employees with a safe and healthy work environment," Shupler wrote. But she again refused to specify what disease had killed Keon.

Rodriguez decided not to let the matter rest. In the early months of this year, he began campaigning to become president of the employee union, known as American Federation of Government Employees Local 2014. "I was laying low, I figured the union would give me a platform to do something about [the TSC] if I could get in," explains Rodriguez. "Especially about the Keon case."

On April 5 Rodriguez -- on vacation and with some free time -- decided to head into the office and meet with potential union supporters. As soon as he arrived, he overheard his opponent, incumbent union president Julius Mellette, discussing the election with the unit vice president, Pat Davis. Rodriguez says this was a direct violation of a rule that forbids employees from politicking while on the clock. He watched the two enter a small, private office in the corner of the sprawling complex. When he sought permission to meet with a couple of employees who had agreed to support him, a supervisor refused to let them take a break.

"I just wasn't being treated fairly," Rodriguez claims. So he walked toward the closed office, then hesitated. "I'm from Brooklyn, and people from Brooklyn are known to be feisty; they don't like to be pushed around," he explains with a grin. "I decided not to let 'em break the rules."

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