Alan Schiff is working on the case of a Burbank woman declared dead--albeit prematurely--by the federal government. Medicare had returned unpaid bills from the woman's doctors, saying, "We don't pay claims of people who died."
Schiff, an aide to Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City), says, "The computer had her as deceased, which was understandably aggravating her."
When one of Berman's constituents believes the federal government has made a mistake--lost a Social Security check, erroneously denied a relative an immigrant visa or refused a bona fide disability request--Alan Schiff is likely to hear about it.
Schiff, bearded and soft-spoken, is a congressional caseworker--a middleman between taxpayers and federal government agencies. He and his counterparts in other San Fernando Valley congressional offices spend their days doggedly trying to cut through bureaucratic red tape with a telephone and a typewriter.
Though less dramatic than televised hearings or lawmaking, congressional casework is often the last resort for those faced with nitty-gritty problems that can lead to consequences as grave as lack of medical care or homelessness. It is also the cornerstone of lawmakers' local operations.
"Almost everything we handle is very emotional," said Rayma Jerome, a caseworker for Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley). "It's either money--someone has held up their check--or they have no place to live, or they want so badly to see a relative."
Paula Sheil, Gallegly's district assistant, told the story of a recently married Oxnard accountant who learned last January he had a brain tumor. Although the man appears to have limited use of his limbs, has lost 35 pounds and says his memory is failing, he cannot collect Social Security disability benefits because a physician deemed him able to work, she said.
Sheil recalled that the 33-year-old man told her, "I can't even remember what my own address is sometimes."
Sheil, who said she broke down and cried after their first meeting, is helping the stricken constituent file an appeal with the state agency that determines who qualifies for Social Security disability.
Given such high personal stakes, it is not surprising that casework is also a sure-fire way for lawmakers to secure the lifelong loyalty of voters--whatever their political persuasion.
"I don't think there's any question that, when you do a case for someone and it's a successful result, it's eternal support," said Marc Litchman, Berman's administrative assistant. "It would be terribly difficult to go out and vote against someone who helped you."
Sometimes a bureaucratic impasse can be overcome with a phone call; more often it requires painstaking follow-up letters, documents and calls that can take months.
"Nine times out of 10, no injustice has been done," Litchman said. "It's just making government follow its own rules in a timely fashion."
Compensation Is Modest
Caseworkers generally enter the field after graduating from college or through involvement as a community or political activist. The financial compensation is, at best, modest. A caseworker's annual salary is $18,000 to $28,000.
The job provides initial government experience for many who later move on to higher-paying public or private-sector careers with more chance for advancement. Many enroll in graduate school after several years. Even veterans agree that listening to the troubles of others day in and day out can be draining.
"It's depressing," Litchman said, explaining the rapid burnout. "By the time people get to us, they're furious. Whether we're responsible or not, they're venting."
Caseworkers invariably say the redeeming value of the job is helping people solve problems.
The good ones do it with the empathy of a social worker, the patience of a fisherman and an attorney's determination to win justice for a client.
A sense of humor helps as well.
Later the same overcast Monday afternoon, Schiff is on the phone with a widow of a disabled Vietnam veteran. The Panorama City woman wants to apply for veterans' survivors benefits after previously being told, apparently wrongly, that she did not qualify for the government aid.
"If you go through me in Congressman Berman's office, we'll speed it up," Schiff says, "We'll just make sure it goes from the top down instead of the bottom up."
Moments later, between bites of his chow mein lunch, he puts in a call to a veterans' office to request application forms for the woman.
The price of failure can be steep: some cases are literally life-and-death matters.
Ginny Hatfield, a longtime caseworker for Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson (D-Tarzana), said a homeless woman "who was having a devil of a time getting benefits" came to see her in June.