Ciera Thaemert got a high chair for Christmas, a surprise that made the towheaded 2-year-old giggle with glee.
Then the family got another holiday surprise from the welfare office: a big cut in their grant.
The $101 penalty, out of $841 a month, was levied because John Thaemert refuses to look for a job.
He says a severe case of fibromyalgia - verified by a Deer Park doctor - keeps him house-bound, in pain and on medication and should disqualify him from welfare’s new get-to-work requirement.
If he continues to demand a waiver, his family could eventually be kicked off welfare.
Only parents of infants, battered wives and drug addicts in recovery are exempt. A disability - regardless of severity - is no longer grounds for a waiver.
A lawyer is helping the Thaemerts appeal the cut. Their hearing Tuesday will be the first in the state, according to state welfare officials.
The cut, made Nov. 18, the same day the family was featured in The Spokesman-Review, sent Thaemert into a spiral of frustration.
“When I found out, I got angry, swore. I said, why is she punishing me for this sickness?” he said.
Trish Simpson-Newberry, the Thaemerts’ case manager with the Department of Social and Health Services, is skeptical of his illness.
Three times, the state disability office has denied his petitions for permanent assistance.
And until Dr. Keith Hindman diagnosed him with fibromyalgia - a controversial and amorphous syndrome - Thaemert was attending school full-time and working 16 hours a week, the case manager notes.
“He’s not at this point unable to participate, he’s unwilling,” Simpson-Newberry said.
Her assessment is supported by supervisors. Under welfare reform, case managers like Simpson-Newberry have broad discretion to approve or reject plans for education, training, even in-home businesses.
Simpson-Newberry has cut other clients’ grants, and describes the decision to pull the money just before Christmas as tough love.
“I don’t like to have to sanction people. It’s the worst part of the job,” she said.
“I can see where not only is the immediate sanction going to hurt, but I can so clearly see how they would just be so much better off financially and emotionally if they participated.”
Thaemert’s wife, Julie, nearly pulled the family off welfare single-handedly in just a month, Simpson-Newberry said.
A mother of five, Thaemert landed her first full-time job last month.
Like 20,000 other Spokane County residents on welfare, she heard what Simpson-Newberry calls “the message,” broadcast nonstop on video monitors at welfare offices. Assistance is temporary, with a five-year lifetime limit, and work is the gateway to a better life, the videos say.
Two months ago, she was depressed by her family’s bleak options and her husband’s constant medical problems.
Now, she gets up early every morning to style her hair, put on eye shadow, kiss her kids goodbye and scoot out the door. She earns $5.75 an hour as an in-home caretaker for the elderly.
“I really like it,” she said, shoving a pan of frozen fish fillets into the oven after work one night. Her clients are friendly, and she glows with confidence.
“I don’t really have a choice. But I enjoy it, it’s not like I dread getting up to go to work.”
She hopes to bring home about $900 a month, working holidays and extra shifts. That would enable the family to drop cash assistance, relying only on food stamps.
But it’s taken a toll.
She got sick earlier this month and missed two days of work. There went $90, she thought as she lay in bed.
John Thaemert is struggling as a stay-at-home dad for Ciera, and after-school supervisor of three of the other children, Avery, Jerome and April.
Some bad days - when the falling barometer squeezes pain into his joints - send him to the bottle of muscle relaxants. Those days, Cierra hunkers all afternoon in front of Disney sing-along videos while her father naps.
“Sometimes it stresses me out,” said Thamert, 38. “It makes me irritable … But it makes me feel good that they won’t be abused or neglected in child care.”
Thaemert’s child-care duties could exempt him from work requirements, as long as his wife works full-time. That issue likely will be addressed at Tuesday’s hearing.
“I hope for better things in the New Year,” he said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: An update Washington’s 61-year-old guarantee of cash assistance for impoverished families ended July 1. The new welfare system demands that the poor work for benefits, and offers help with child care and transportation to make the way to work easier. The Spokesman-Review is following the three Spokane County families as they attempt to transition from welfare to work. Here’s an update on on the Thaemerts.