On appeal from the Final Administrative Decision of Family Development.
Dreier, Brochin and Kleiner. The opinion of the court was delivered by Dreier, J.A.D.
[270 NJSuper Page 192] Edward Robinson appeals from an order of the Director of the Division of Family Development terminating his general assistance benefits for a period of ninety days as a result of his noncompliance with the rules governing the "workfare" program. Appellant's general assistance benefits were conditioned upon his continued participation in the workfare program which in his case required that he work at least three days a month in an approved work program. See former N.J.S.A. 44:8-114 (prior to the amendments
of L. 1991, c. 523, § 14, originally effective July 1, 1991, but postponed to July 1, 1992).
Under appellant's workfare program he was required to report to the Paterson Yard for a work assignment on a recycling truck at 7:00 a.m. on August 12, 1992. Initially, appellant claimed that he was only ten minutes late, but later admitted "I was just late. I was trying to comply. I'm sorry. I was late. My alarm clock didn't go off. That's all I could tell you." He did not arrive at the site until shortly after 8:00 a.m. Although appellant was still willing to work on the recycling trucks, they had already left. Appellant was therefore directed to obtain another work assignment. Instead of reporting to the General Assistance Employability Program Office, within walking distance of the yard, appellant reported to the Paterson Welfare Office and met with his caseworker. She terminated appellant's public assistance for a period of ninety days. See former N.J.S.A. 44:8-114 authorizing, and N.J.A.C. 10:85-3.2(g)7ii(1) specifying, a ninety-day penalty. These sections are discussed in more detail infra.
Appellant appealed the notice of termination and requested a local hearing. On August 25, 1992 appellant was heard by the Municipal Welfare Department and the termination was affirmed, effective September 1st. Appellant then requested a State-level emergency hearing which was held September 10, 1992 by an administrative law Judge who recommended affirmance of the decision. Appellant filed exceptions to this decision, but on September 28, 1992 the Director of the Division of Family Development in the Department of Human Services affirmed the termination. We are informed that appellant's benefits at the time were $140 per month, and the amount in controversy therefore is $420.*fn1 The principles involved, however, far exceed this sum.
Appellant had participated in the General Assistance Workfare Program since September 1990. Under N.J.A.C. 10:85-10.4, he was required to work three days per month. This instance of oversleeping by an hour, ostensibly due to an alarm clock malfunction, was alleged by the welfare worker to be appellant's third infraction in the nearly two years he had participated. Since the three alleged infractions had occurred in the last five months of this period, the welfare worker terminated the benefits because of what she perceived to be a changed pattern in appellant's participation in the program. One of the two prior alleged derelictions was a violation for an unknown reason on April 22, 1992, documented only by a note in the welfare file. The present welfare worker had only supervised this case since June 1992, and was unfamiliar with this first alleged violation. The second violation on June 25, 1992, was in fact excused. On that date appellant was late to work because he had to pay a parking ticket. He had reported to the job site to receive a new work assignment and the General Assistance Program Office contacted the Municipal Welfare Office for approval, which was given. The welfare worker noted, however, that there was good cause to terminate appellant's benefits for ninety days because of the August 1992 tardiness, even without the prior incidents.
One of appellant's arguments is that the Municipal Welfare Office was not the proper decision-making entity. The administrative law Judge reviewed this contention in detail, and determined that local procedures had changed because of budget constraints and that the Municipal Welfare Department had been making eligibility determinations because the New Jersey Employment Service could only see the General Assistance Employment Program participants once a month. Except where a work site is considered an interim assignment for a benefit recipient, N.J.A.C. 10:85-10.1(b) and N.J.A.C. 10:85-10.7(a) appear to vest
the decision-making authority (concerning whether good cause existed for a failure or refusal to perform work) with the Employment Service, not the Municipal Welfare Department. The administrative law Judge, however, gave recognition to the changed procedure delegating this decision to the Welfare Department.
Rather than base our decision on a possible technical deficiency concerning the proper decision maker in this case, we prefer to review the statutory and regulatory scheme, and rest our decision on those grounds.
General assistance is governed by N.J.S.A. 44:8-107 et seq. It is the final safety net under all other assistance programs. It is available only if the recipient is unemployable or unable to find a job. Exclusion from this program relegates the potential recipient who truly cannot find any gainful employment to private beneficence, if available, or if not, to begging on the streets. Potential recipients are permitted little or no savings, and unless they are lucky enough to have family, friends or a charitable organization willing to care for them, exclusion from this program may leave them with no viable means of support. In construing these statutes therefore we do so with an inherent refusal to ...