An uneven helping hand

Relief: For some people out of work because of the Sept. 11 attacks, geography plays a role in how much help they're receiving.

February 26, 2002|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Garrett Tucker and Kerah Wilkerson worked together for US Airways at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. Both were laid off Sept. 11, and when they needed help last fall, the Salvation Army paid a month's worth of bills for each.

Now Wilkerson, back at her job as a ramp agent, is getting another check in the mail from the Salvation Army office in Prince George's County - one she didn't ask for. Tucker, still waiting to be called back to work, will not get an unsolicited check - because he lives in Owings Mills, where the charity has stopped its disaster relief effort for workers.

Theirs is one of the many tales of how the huge charitable response to the terrorist attacks, in which nearly $2 billion has been raised by hundreds of organizations big and small, can carve out seemingly random groups of haves and have-nots.

In this case, the disparity arose from the different bureaucratic divisions of a large nationwide charity. The Salvation Army offices closest to the Pentagon attack - in Montgomery and Prince's George's counties, northern Virginia and Washington, D.C. - decided to use $4 million in leftover disaster money to send a second wave of checks to displaced workers who had met the charity's criteria for help last fall.

The Salvation Army of Greater Baltimore, which serves the city and Baltimore, Howard, Carroll and parts of Anne Arundel counties, sent the unused portion of donations it received locally for the disaster - about $60,000 - to its national headquarters, after being told the money was needed to help the families of those who died at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania.

Late yesterday, however, after The Sun asked about the apparent inequalities created by the policies, officials of the charity changed their stance. Lafeea Watson, public relations director for the Greater Baltimore organization, said that starting today, the 82 workers who were helped by her office last fall may call to request that their files be sent to the Washington offices, where they will be reviewed for second checks.

The charity will not send unsolicited checks, though, to eligible Baltimore area residents, nor will it call them to let them know about the new policy. "I think at this time it's going to be word of mouth that's going to get it out," Watson said.

The Salvation Army generally requires that people apply for help from the offices nearest where they live to prevent duplication, officials said. That's why Tucker, a 39-year- old father of two who has been a ramp supervisor at National for the past four years, applied for help in Baltimore.

Tucker was thankful for the $1,500 in bills the charity paid for him last fall. But when he heard that co-workers like Wilkerson were getting payments they hadn't expected - even though some of them were working again - he wondered why he couldn't receive the same help.

When Tucker called the Baltimore office, he was told that division was not sending out a second wave of assistance. "I just figured the Salvation Army, as large as they are, they would all follow the same criteria," he said.

Meanwhile, Tucker's family has been living on his wife's earnings as a travel agent and an unemployment check that is less than half the nearly $3,000 he brought home every month. They have been borrowing money from relatives.

"Every month we sit down and try to figure out who's going to get paid first," Tucker said.

Wilkerson, 34, of Beltsville, said that even though she has been back at work for a month, she could use another check. "When I was laid off I couldn't pay my share of the bills," she said. "So everything was on my spouse, [and] that really hurt us."

But some workers are turning down the unsolicited checks, said David Sears, director of development for the Salvation Army's National Capital Area.

Until the charity switched its policy yesterday afternoon, Sears said he could not just forward that money to similar people who might need it in Baltimore. "That's a separate administrative district," Sears said. "I wish I could say that I had that discretion."

The conflicting policies have left the workers - already fearful that they won't be called back to their jobs for months - frustrated about dealing with charities.

Christine Bodan of Catonsville, who also worked at National, said the Salvation Army has been one of the few charities to give any help at all to workers who lost their jobs as a result of the attacks. Most have focused on helping victims of the attacks and their families.

Like Tucker, Bodan is still waiting to return to work. She also had applied for and received help the first time in Baltimore - and had been turned down when she asked whether that office would follow Washington's policy of sending more money.

"It upset me, the fact they didn't research and see who's out of work and just cut these checks in these other areas," Bodan said. Now that the policy has changed, she said: "That will be a great help, because we are still struggling."

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