Social Insecurity

Robert Rodriguez had to go to the bathroom. The urge was inconvenient on this late June afternoon, the first day Rodriguez returned to work following an 11-week suspension. Inconvenient because Rodriguez was not on an allotted break, when he might leave the building and walk to his nearby apartment. Inconvenient because he was still a couple hours shy of closing time at his office, an unmarked, anonymous federal facility in downtown Fort Lauderdale. Inconvenient, most of all, because Rodriguez was not allowed to go to the bathroom by himself.

Instead the 45-year-old Vietnam vet -- a proud native of Brooklyn and five-year employee of the Social Security Administration (SSA) -- was followed to the bathroom by a man with a gun. The man was a uniformed officer of the Federal Protective Service, the police agency that protects federal sites.

Disquieting as this arrangement was, Rodriguez had to urinate. So he rose from his desk. Rodriguez was thinking: Maybe the guard won't follow me this time. Wrong. While Rodriguez unzipped his trousers, the guard stood in a corner and watched. Afterward the guard followed him out of the bathroom and stationed himself in plain view of Rodriguez's desk.

This desk is one of more than 100 in the cavernous, L-shaped sprawl of the Fort Lauderdale Teleservice Center (TSC), part of the SSA's huge federal bureaucracy. The desks are arranged in long straight lines -- two lines of desks along the lengthy part of the L, and three shorter lines along the base of the L. Each desk is manned by a Telephone Service Representative (TSR) who answers questions from the public about social security benefits.

Of these TSRs only Rodriguez was shadowed by the federal cops. Then again, only Rodriguez had so openly questioned the practices of his bosses. In letters to SSA higher-ups and other federal offices, he has doggedly sought explanations for a range of problems he perceives as either unfair or dangerous.

For example: Why do some employees sign time sheets that say they are working when they aren't? Why did one employee hold a second job, which she worked while on the SSA time clock? Why did one man, hired in July 1999, die four months later, after unintentionally defecating in the workplace on a number of occasions? And why did managers tell employees that the SSA would pay for any medical test they wished to take, without revealing the ailment that killed the man?

"There are a lot of whys," Rodriguez says, "but so far no because. They just decided to sit on it."

None of Rodriguez's supervisors or SSA officials would discuss his allegations with New Times. But their attitude toward him is clear enough from internal memos: They view him as a problem employee, and they have tried to characterize him as potentially dangerous and unpredictable. Earlier this year he argued angrily with union representatives and a supervisor in front of other employees, which resulted in not just his lengthy suspension but his constant surveillance by the federal cops.

Several of Rodriguez's coworkers corroborate his version of life at Fort Lauderdale's TSC, but none would agree to be identified on the record -- all said they feared losing their jobs with the SSA if they defended him publicly. While Rodriguez clearly has the best interests of employees in mind, his colleagues also concede that he shows a propensity to challenge authority.

With a thatch of close-cropped dark hair and thick glasses propped on a fleshy face, Rodriguez often appears bemused. He scours the New York Times and local papers every day. He reads histories of the Third Reich and Stalinist Russia and plays war games. The son of a Spanish father and Puerto Rican mother, Rodriguez swells to more than six feet, two inches and weighs about 230 pounds. His polyester clothes appear too small to fit him well. Like a big, affable bear, Rodriguez moves slowly. And like many New Yorkers, he seems to relish the lively give-and-take of argument.

"He sort of can't back down once he sees something wrong," according to one TSC neighbor. "He's like Don Quixote. What he says is fair, but sometimes he's not too smart about it either."Rodriguez took the SSA job in 1995 as an attempt to put his life back together after a series of misfortunes. A 12-year postal service employee, Rodriguez says he was threatened with dismissal on three occasions, in part for challenging union officials and his bosses in the 1980s and making enemies. He finally quit the post office in 1990, spending the first half of the new decade trying his hand at various trades. He managed his mother's family citrus farm in Puerto Rico. He worked briefly as a stockbroker. He had a wife and son, and he owned a two-story house in Homestead, Florida.

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Roger Williams