Dept. of Human Services shuts down for party on hottest day of the year

(WJLA) - ABC7 has learned that D.C.'s Department of Human Services shut down most of the day Wednesday so employees could be paid taxpayer money to attend a party.

A spokesperson confirms that offices shut down for the day at 11 a.m. for what the department is calling its "first annual employee recognition celebration." It was held at the Panorama Room high atop a hill overlooking the city in Southeast.

Pedro Ribeiro, spokesperson for D.C.'s mayor, said the mayor's office is looking into the closure. He called it irresponsible, saying it showed a lack of judgment to close on the hottest day of the year.

The job of Human Services is to help low-income residents with things like health insurance, housing, and also shelters on hot days.

"I think it's important for the people of DC to understand that this is unacceptable," said resident Marci Taylor, who says she was unable to get help after learning her and her husband's temporary insurance had been inexplicably cancelled.

"He can't get his medication, I can't make the doctors appointments I need to make," she said.

Taylor says she's been trying to use Human Services to get her insurance situation worked out for months. She tried calling again on Tuesday.

"I was on hold for two hours and 34 minutes, before I finally got hung up on," she said, adding that she called back later and was finally told a supervisor would call her back Wednesday.

"Didn't hear from anybody," she said. "I call in, everything is closed."

She says learning the reason why the office was closed was especially upsetting.

"My insurance, yes, it's a problem, and I need to get it resolved as soon as possible, but I'm thinking about all these people that are out in this heat that have nowhere to go," she said. "Their health and their ability to get what they what they need to survive should not be put on hold for a party."

In an email, Human Services spokesperson Dora Taylor said the department had not had any event like Wednesday's in 15 years. She said it did not keep the department from opening a cooling center at the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center, adding that no one used it after it opened.

She also added that signs were posted in DHS's service centers to inform customers "well ahead of the closure."

But Marci Taylor says those signs didn't help customers like her.

"I don't go into the office," she said. "I didn't know...they didn't tell me that when I called in yesterday. They didn't tell me that when I was on hold for hours. How do I know?"

On Thursday, D.C Mayor Gray defended the event:

"It wasn't just a party, and that's a mischaracterization to call it that," he said to ABC7. "You call it a party, it looks like they were out jamming in the streets. You don't want to do that."

Whether you call it a celebration, a party, or an event, Mayor Vincent Gray went to the Panorama Room in Southeast to be a part of it yesterday, and says he did not know the agency had essentially shut down because of it. However, he insists the event was held for good reason:

“I really respect and appreciate the opportunity to say thanks to people. I think if we had it to do over again we certainly would, we certainly would make sure services were continued to people."

D.C. Councilmember Jim Graham -- who chairs the committee overseeing DHS -- disagrees, and tells us that this was not, in his opinion, a good use of taxpayer dollars.

“I think this is poor judgement and it affected a lot of people."

In an email from Dora Taylor, Public Information Officer with the Department of Human Services, she writes the following:

The majority of the attendees for the First Annual Employee Recognition Ceremony sponsored by the Department of Human Services and the Labor Management Partnership Council were employees of the agency. The cost of the event for DHS was approximately $30 per attendee, and the theme was indoor picnic, so the menu reflected such. Employees were encouraged to attend to be recognized for their hard work and for years of service, in fact, one employee was recognized for 55 years of District Government service, another for 45 years and several with 30 or 35 years of service. Since the event was not mandatory, staff members who chose not to be present remained at their work sites to attend to case work. The event was held during the day to include lunch and maximize employee participation. This was a special effort to recognize the front line staff that work in the service centers; therefore, the offices were closed early. Signs were posted in all DHS Service Centers well ahead of time to inform customers of the closure.

Regenold Esther has taken two trips to the D.C. Department of Human Services in Southeast in the past two days, and says that when he got to the counter on Wednesday, he was told he would have to come back.

"How do you shut down a whole office building for a party when people need help?" he asks.

A spokesperson for D.C. councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, who is on the council's Human Services committee, also expressed concern about Wednesday's closure.

DHS says more than 500 people attended the party Wednesday.