Time is running short for the Jones family.
The lease on the home the family of four -- David, his wife, Sandra, and sons Zachary and Matthew -- has been renting ran out at the end of December. The owner would not extend it because she wants to live in the house.
They have not been able to find a new place to rent because they have no income. They are running out of possessions to sell to keep the utilities turned on and food on the table.
And David Jones – who fell and injured his back and hand while working as a compost operator for the Ocean County Department of Solid Waste Management in July 2010 – continues to suffer from chronic pain that is sometimes so bad that he spends the night in the emergency room. His right hand remains curled, unusable. He uses a cane because increasing numbness in his leg and foot have left him unable to walk normally.
Jones says Ocean County has been dragging its feet on the matter and “using every excuse in the book” to avoid it. And he doesn’t understand why. Doctor after doctor has examined him. All have certified he is unable to return to work due to the injuries he suffered. The county, he says, is refusing to accept responsibility for his injuries, and refusing to help him in any way, going so far as to terminate him in May 2011 for what they said was abandoning his job, then refusing to discuss matters because of what they say is an ongoing worker’s compensation case.
Jones says all he wants is for the county to help him file for an accidental disability pension, a benefit available to public employees enrolled in the Public Employees' Retirement System, which Jones paid into as a county employee. The county could file the paperwork automatically for him, he said; if he files it himself, the county must sign off on it, acknowledging Jones suffered an on-the-job injury. Jones says the county has refused to do either, and it has become an ongoing battle. In August 2012 the county was ordered to resume temporary disability payments as well as resume treating Jones’ medical issues. But he is drained.
“All I want is for them to put in the disability paperwork so I can take care of my family,” he says.
Attempts to talk to County Attorney John C. Sahradnick, in person and by phone, for this article over the past two months have been unsuccessful.
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Three years ago, life was good for David Jones and his wife, Sandra. Their younger son, Matthew, had just turned 1; their older son, Zachary, was enjoying life as a big brother. David Jones had gone to work for Ocean County in June 2008, looking for long-term stability for his family. Things were going well, Jones said, noting he was receiving praise for his work as a compost operator and had been given increasing responsibility.
Everything changed the morning of July 6, 2010.
Jones was preparing to move a tub grinder – an industrial wood chipper – to Ocean County College, where the county was clearing land for the construction of the new Kean@Ocean gateway building.
“I just had to hook up two air lines and the electrical line,” he said. He had one foot on the steps and one on the grate when he lost his balance.
Jones said he landed in a seated position on a steel grate that covered part of the tractor portion of the truck, his legs dangling through two gaps as if he’d deliberately sat down. He tried to move his right hand to give himself leverage to get out, and as he did so, he felt a tugging sensation. He pulled hard against the resistance, trying to free his hand.
The resistance he was feeling wasn’t because his sleeve was caught, however; it was the result of a bungee cord hook that had become impaled in the palm of his hand.
“I didn’t realize it,” he said. The tugging drove the hook deeper into his hand. When his hand wouldn’t pull free, that’s when he noticed he was bleeding. And that’s when he noticed the pain, too.
For a moment, Jones said, he was nervous, because he was alone and where he was on the truck was not immediately visible from the entrance to the site where he was working.
Then he remembered he had stuck his cellphone in his shirt pocket.
“Normally I carried it in my pants pocket,” Jones said, but that morning he had stuck it in the right shirt pocket while he was working. He reached with his left hand and grabbed it, and called his supervisor for help.
“They had to lift me out of the chassis,” Jones said.
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“I’ve always been a worker,” David Jones says. “Sitting around like this bothers me.”
Jones started working when he was 15 years old and always prided himself on getting the job done. He earned a commercial driver’s license two years before he went to work for the county.
Since the accident, however, he has had to give up that license. He cannot drive. He has not been cleared to return to work. Surgery and multiple treatments have failed to restore use to Jones’ right hand. His fingers curl as though he’s holding a stick, but if he were given one, he has no ability to actually grasp it.
His hand issues are only part of the problem, however, Jones said. Intense pain has never been fully relieved – he sometimes sleeps on the floor because of it – and increasing numbness in his leg and foot has left him with a condition called foot drop syndrome, where he is unable to lift his foot normally when he takes a step or tries to walk. He relies on a cane to keep his balance.
“It’s not one simple thing,” he said.
Jones – who shared his medical files and reports so numerous they fill a 6-inch deep file box – says his back was not examined during the initial treatment, because the injury to his hand was so obvious and immediate, and the pain so severe. But within weeks of the accident, he began having issues with his leg – issues documented on Aug. 25, 2010, by Dr. Shefali Gandhi, a neurologist at Ocean Medical Park in Brick to whom Jones was referred, in a report sent to Dr. Brian Katt of Brielle Orthopedics, who was treating Jones for the hand injury.
“… since his problems started he has been having shoulder pain as well and he notices that he has been having some difficulty in the left leg as well,” Gandhi wrote.
Katt documented issues with his leg and foot in December 2010, noting in his report that “He has numbness in the level of his feet and is walking on the outside of his feet,” and adding, “I am unsure of the relationship between the injury to his hand and the neurological complaints that he has; however, he did not have any of these neurological complaints before the injury occurred.”
All of the doctors agreed, however, that Jones was not capable of returning to work.
Jones continued to see doctors – Katt recommended a thorough neurological workup including checking for multiple sclerosis and other neurological conditions, all of which have come back negative. But Jones’ condition continued to deteriorate.
Jones has been diagnosed with a condition called “conversion disorder,” according to Dr. Kimberly Hogan, Jones’ personal physician, and that has become a point of contention, between him and the county, he says. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, maintained by the National Institutes for Health, conversion disorder is “a condition in which a person has blindness, paralysis, or other nervous system (neurologic) symptoms that cannot be explained by medical evaluation.”
While conversion disorder may explain the ongoing issues with his hand, Jones said another doctor said that would not account for the severe pain he has been feeling. Jones was sent to Dr. Nicholas Diamond in New Brunswick in October, part of a followup treatment ordered as a result of a workers compensation hearing that occurred the same day as the Civil Service Commission hearing in August. Diamond said a followup MRI of Jones's entire spine – the only MRI he'd had during his treatment examined his only his neck region – showed what Jones said the doctor told him are “severe herniations” of discs, particularly in the lowest part of his spine.
Jones said he'd had yearly physicals before the July 2010 accident and had no issues in his lower before that day, which was confirmed by Hogan, his personal physician.
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It was in December 2010 when things got ugly, Jones says. On Nov. 9, 2010, Katt said Jones was not able to return to work and set a reexamination for six weeks later. A followup with Dr. Frederick L. Ballet of Hand Surgery and Rehabilitation Center of Marlton on Nov. 29 confirmed Katt's findings that Jones was still injured, though they were unable to pinpoint why his condition was not improving. Ballet, too, said Jones was unable to return to work.
But on Dec. 3, 2010, Jones says, he received a call telling him that if he did not return to work the following Monday, he would be fired. So he tried to go back to work, despite the doctors’ statements that he was unable to do so.
In documents from a Civil Service hearing in August 2012, the county claims Katt cleared Jones to return to work on Dec. 2, 2010 with several restrictions – restrictions the county said in the hearing that it was ultimately unable to accommodate.
“They had me picking up garbage,” Jones said; the description in court documents said he was assigned to check load tickets. It required Jones to spend a lot of time on his feet, he said, and going to the bathroom – which was more frequent because of the issues he was having – required walking across a field to get to a port-a-john, a difficult task because of the problem he had with his leg. At first, Jones said, a co-worker would drive him over, but Jones quickly realized the patience with that arrangement was going to be short-lived. Jones said after a few days of the routine, he knew he couldn’t continue to work, so he took a couple of personal days that he had and told the county he could not continue.
Two weeks later, in a Dec. 23, 2010 progress report, Katt stated: “At this point I do not feel he is a candidate to work in any capacity and I will see him back after being seen by the neurologist.”
On March 17, 2011, Keith Goetting, director of the county’s Department of Employee Relations, notified Jones that he was being granted leave without pay through April 17 of that year, with the hope he could return to work thereafter, but that he was at the point of having exhausted all the leave available to him and would have to make a decision about what he intended to do about his job.
With his medical issues worsening, Jones was unable to return to work, and in May 2011 the county terminated him, accusing him of abandoning his job, a finding that was upheld by Hearing Officer James W. Holzapfel.
Jones contested the finding of abandoning his job, contending he asked for a light-duty position and was denied that despite the fact that other employees have been accommodated. After months of wrangling, the state Civil Service Commission reviewed the case and found that while the county had the authority to terminate Jones, they changed the finding from “resignation not in good standing” to “resignation in good standing,” reflecting the fact that Jones was willing to work but that the county could not offer him a position that could accommodate his medical issues.
Jones says at this point he just wants the county to allow him to receive the accidental disability pension that he says he is entitled to receive because he was injured on the job, but says the county is refusing to cooperate.
Their refusal has boxed him into a corner, he says. Sandra Jones has been unable to find a job that provides the flexibility she needs to drive David to his many doctors’ visits, as well as allow her to transport their younger son to speech therapy sessions.
Without verifiable income, he and his wife have been unable to find another rental. They have sold off as many possessions as they can to pay bills. They have sought rental assistance, energy bill assistance, and more, and have found themselves going in circles and getting nowhere fast.
He is deeply worried about what will happen if he and his family are evicted, because, he says, they have nowhere to go. Their families have no room to take them in, because they’ve taken in other family members who’ve suffered job losses due to the economy.
His best hope, he says, is to get the disability pension, so he can provide for his family.
“I just want to move on with my life,” he said. And he could do that, he says, if the county would just do the right thing. He even took his case to a meeting of the Ocean County Board of Freeholders in October. During that meeting, attended by a number of county workers asking for a better pay increase in contract negotiations, Freeholder John C. Bartlett made a statement that the county had cut staffing without firing anyone.
"How can you say that," Jones countered during the public portion of the meeting, "when you fired me?"
Jones says the bottom line is the county is refusing to do what is right and what it is supposed to be doing for him.
“The fact is it is an on-the-job injury that they need to take responsibility for,” Jones said.