I had an appointment to view a video at one of the local welfare offices last week. The woman I was to meet told me to ask someone at the front desk to call her when I got there so she could come out and let me into the secured area by her office.
So I asked - repeatedly. The first employee wouldn't let me finish my sentence: "My name's Loi----" "Go to the end of that line," she snapped. The second one glanced at her phone list, said, "I don't see her name," and walked away before I could volunteer the number. The third was very polite. She promised to make the call and she did - 15 minutes after the woman I was interviewing came out to see where I was and invited me in.The whole thing made me furious, not because I believe reporters deserve to be treated better than that, but because I believe people deserve courtesy and respect.
I need to make it clear that the district director took care of the problem. He confronted the staff members involved. One even called and apologized. He issued a reminder that courtesy is expected of all employees at all times. And he called to apologize and thank me for letting him know about it.
He said it would never happen again, and I believe him. I, in turn, told him I wouldn't beat a dead horse. It's over. I bring it up one last time only because I think there's another story here.
It's a story that is played out in offices across the country - certainly not just in this district. It happens wherever there are too few employees and too many clients needing attention, from the Department of Motor Vehicles to some banks.
Call it a story of Human Value and Self-Respect. Or a story about Bureaucracy vs. the Little People. The story can apply wherever you have a "gatekeeper" - be it the doctor's or lawyer's receptionist or the local employment agency's. These "human buffers" are sometimes abrasive - but it's impossible to get where you're going unless you deal with them.
It's annoying at best. It's degrading at worst. In social services, it hurts the push toward self-sufficiency.
Welfare reform and self-sufficiency are among the buzzwords of 1988. Everyone agrees it would be great to get people off assistance and on the tax rolls. Every person I've talked to lists self-esteem as a key ingredient to the success of any self-sufficiency effort.
Yet the entire system seems to be geared to humiliation. The bantering between clerk and customer in a grocery store often ends abruptly when food stamps are pulled out. Any aspect of applying for welfare, according to recipients, is embarrassing. "By being here," one told me, "you admit you couldn't make it on your own. You lost." And everywhere they go, there are lines - for food, for benefits, to see caseworkers . . . .
Intellectually, I understand it. Other people don't want to see someone else given preferential treatment. When a welfare office, for example, sees hundreds of clients in a day, maybe you have to put them in a line to avoid chaos. And tight budgets have for a long time meant too few employees to personalize service. Workers are overwhelmed by sheer numbers and I honestly believe they're doing the best they can within the system. They employ the assembly-line theory just to cope: Focus on doing one job and get it done faster and smoother.
The problem is, people aren't automobiles. They're individuals - young, old, healthy, sick, rich or poor. I've heard complaints that women who are eight months pregnant must wait in lines for up to three hours to pick up food stamps so they'll have food to give them the energy to wait in lines for up to three hours . . . . I know others in those same lines to apply for or pick up disability checks for back injuries or illnesses that probably aren't helped by standing for long periods of time.
I don't pretend to know the solution to problems and hostility created by long lines. And I don't pretend to know the secret formula that would get the Legislature to put money into hiring enough workers to handle efficiently the number of people who go in and out of government offices. I do know that lines make everyone unhappy and probably irritate both clients and workers.
I also know it doesn't cost anything to be polite. Sometimes it's just a matter of inflection.
In this case, I complained about poor treatment and got some result. I could do that because I am a reporter who, in this instance, could bypass the gatekeepers. Sometimes, I can't get past the very people about whom I wish to complain. And neither can others.