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 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, 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. A spokeswoman noted that there are currently 220 caretakers on paid leave, out of 20,000 total workers.
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.
A bill awaiting Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature would require the agency to identify the causes of chronic job vacancies and high turnover rates.