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From Welfare To Work Family Wins Reprieve From Fines

Sat., Feb. 28, 1998

For now, fibromyalgia is a valid excuse to stay home.

That temporary ruling affirms John Thaemert’s role as a stay-at-home dad, caring for his five kids while his wife works.

It’s a rare instance of state officials exempting someone - even for a short time - from the strict new work requirements of welfare reform.

“They finally opened their eyes,” Thaemert said. “It’s a burden off my brain.”

Thaemert’s doctor had diagnosed the 38-year-old former airplane mechanic with chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia and related, controversial maladies.

When the Deer Park man, citing the diagnosis, refused to work for his welfare check, his family was fined $100 a month, starting in December.

A ruling on the family’s appeal is expected in March. Pending the outcome, the fine has been lifted.

The Thaemerts’ case manager, Trish Newberry, is investigating John’s claims in anticipation of a hearing before a judge next month. Until then, she’s exempting him from 20-hour-a-week minimum work requirements and attendance at job-search workshops.

Demanding that Thaemert find work is in his long-term interests, Newberry said. The family has been on welfare for 10 years, since John Thaemert’s deteriorating health prompted him to quit.

“If they can, they must work,” Newberry said of welfare recipients. “Certainly there are limitations, but we can work with the limitations.”

John’s wife, Julie, continues to work for a company providing care for the elderly.

It’s the 33-year-old woman’s first full-time job. Her earnings have cut the family’s welfare check in half. She hopes they are one pay raise from being off public assistance.

For her, welfare reform, called WorkFirst in Washington, has been a good thing, said Mary Seagrave, the legal services attorney handling the Thaemerts’ appeal.

But John Thaemert’s case shows the system still needs fine-tuning, she said.

“I think it works,” said Seagrave, “it’s just too rigid.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo

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