If a teacher is hit, and no one’s around to see it, is she still on duty?
That’s the question Claudia Imbert asked the city’s education department after she was struck by a car in 2016. The answer? No. And her union refuses to intervene.
Imbert used to be a tango dancer, an avid hiker and a size 2. But since a car hit her near the intersection of East 174th Street and Harrod Avenue in Soundview, the home instruction teacher does none of these things.
Imbert had just finished teaching her last student of the day at his home on East 174th, and was walking to her car nearby when the Windsor North resident was hit.
“It was my light,” Imbert said. “His front tire went on top of my foot, and my body was on the side of his car. I was telling the driver to get off my foot, and when he moved the car, he started cursing at me.”
The police who investigated the accident never took a statement from her, she said. While at the hospital, she started to feel pain in her hips, shoulder and neck.
Two years and three surgeries later, Imbert still lives with chronic pain that has snaked its way to her back and legs. She’s in debt more than $80,000 because once she used up all her sick days, her health insurance was cut off, and she had to start taking out loans to pay her medical bills.
Her request for something known as “line of duty injury” payment from the education department was ultimately denied for a number of reasons, including the administration’s claim that because Imbert had already left the student’s house, she was technically no longer on duty.
“I can understand if she went to the beauty salon or shopping, but she was on her way back to her car after teaching her homebound student,” Imbert’s attorney, Jerald Kreppel, said. “She would not have even been there had she not been on duty.”
In a March 31 letter from then education chancellor Carmen Fariña’s office, her representative Gordon Wormser provided several rationale to deny Imbert paid time off and medical expense reimbursement. One of the primary issues was the driver’s claim Imbert was on the phone while crossing the street — which she denies — and was not paying attention.
Even if she had been on the phone, Kreppel said, as a pedestrian, she’d have the right of way. Even more, the driver could not be an objective witness, since he could benefit from shifting the blame for the accident from himself to Imbert.
Wormser also had issues with the fact Imbert was more than a block away from her last assignment when she was hit, and that she was on her way home — not to another student’s house.
Kreppel challenges both claims, however, stating that regulations governing accident pay don’t require her to be in between assignments or traveling between work sites to be considered on duty.
“The case has merit, and for it to be denied for such an arbitrary decision that just says she’s out of luck because of where her car was parked, is frankly a stupid position,” Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz said.
Realizing she had more of an uphill climb than she expected, Imbert reached out to the United Federation of Teachers, the educators union she has belonged to for the last 15 years. But the union refused to intervene, backing the education department’s position on the matter.
After hearing Imbert’s story, Dinowitz wrote a letter to UFT president Michael Mulgrew, hoping the union changes course and helps Imbert collect benefits.
“Ms. Imbert has paid her UFT dues for 15 years,” Dinowitz wrote. “Accordingly, it is respectfully requested that the UFT reconsider its decision.”
Union spokeswoman Allison Gendar later told The Riverdale Press that UFT’s general counsel would reach out to Imbert’s attorney shortly, but that did not happen before the newspaper went to press.
Since the accident, Imbert’s sister and mother have helped her at home because she can no longer cook and clean for herself. She currently pays for her own physical therapy bills and takes about 20 different medications, which has caused Imbert to gain some weight.
Some of the pills are for pain while others are for sleeping because of the “stabbing” pressure she feels in her tailbone, arms and back every day. Imbert has invested in a massage chair, heating pads and even tried acupuncture and cupping to cope with the throbbing.
“I have nerve damage on the left and right arm,” Imbert said. “I can’t write or hold anything. I don’t sleep because I am constantly in pain, so I take sleep medication for that, too. But the pain never stops. It only goes down.”
Kreppel isn’t giving up. He’s already working on another letter to the union, and is working to obtain Imbert’s cell phone records to prove she wasn’t on her phone when the accident occurred.
“This is outrageous,” Kreppel said. “I’m hoping that the union will respond to this letter and take another look at this. That is what we are hoping.”
CORRECTION: Claudia Imbert, the at-home teacher who is fighting for some sort of disability pay after being hit by a car on her way home from work, has accrued debts of about $80,000. A story in the June 28 issue provided a different amount.