Settlement Augurs Sanction Refunds for New Yorkers

MANHATTAN (CN) – Wrapping up eight years of litigation, public advocates announced a settlement on Friday that they estimate will compensate 250,000 New Yorkers slapped with “workfare” sanctions.

The Legal Aid Society and Kramer Levin brought the suit in 2010, accusing commissioners with New York’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance and Human Resources Administration of docking the benefits of those accused of missing an appointment or assigned work activity.

“The benefit levels were not enough to pay rent and meet basic needs to begin with, but when families were sanctioned they were pushed into even deeper poverty and frequently made homeless,” Legal Aid’s senior attorney Lester Helfman said in a statement. “Once this settlement is final thousands will receive relief from the punitive sanctions that threatened their livelihoods.”

Those who stand to benefit include public-assistance recipients who were sanctioned between 2007 and 2015, some five years after case was first filed.

When the case’s docket first opened, the global economy had taken a nosedive two years early, and the public-assistance recipients were getting sanctions instead of bailouts.

“More than 1.6 million New York City residents depend on cash assistance and/or food stamps to sustain themselves, a number that is steadily rising in the current economic crisis,” the second amended complaint noted.

“Each year, tens of thousands of these individuals receive notices from the city’s welfare agency, the Human Resources Administration, that the cash assistance benefits and/or food stamps that keep them fed and sheltered are being terminated or reduced to punish them for an alleged failure to comply with the agency’s requirements that able-bodies recipients seek and maintain employment,” it continued. “The duration of a punitive sanction can be as long as six months.”

Kramer Levin’s attorney Susan Jacquemot said in a statement that many received violations for failing to understand inscrutable paperwork.

“Often times families were sanctioned and punished unnecessarily and unfairly because the notices they had been sent were confusing and incomplete,” Jacquemot added. 

New York State Supreme Court Justice Lucy Billings signed a preliminary order on Dec. 21 and scheduled a fairness hearing for March 6.  

The Human Resources Administration’s press secretary Lourdes Centeno lauded the settlement as redressing the wrongs of a prior administration.

“This settlement is the result of our efforts to fully reform the sanction process for public assistance recipients and compensate those who were negatively impacted by unfair policies under the previous administration from 2007 through 2013,” Centeno said in a statement. “We began these reforms in 2014 but in order to completely fix the process, we needed to change the relevant State Law, which occurred in 2015 and therefore the settlement also covers 2014 and part of 2015.”

Representatives from the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance did not respond to a request for comment.

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