NEW YORK CITY — If Robert Rice did not have bad luck, he’d have no luck at all.
First he lost his house to Hurricane Sandy. Then he lost out on his dream law enforcement job by two heartbeats and thanks to a bizarre set of technicalities.
“I was devastated,” said Rice, a father of four whose job as a state court officer was yanked out from under him just days after the New Year. “It’s almost like a New York State conspiracy.”
Rice’s saga began in 2005 when he worked for Federal Express and took the court officer’s test. It was a job the then-29-year-old always wanted. He aced the written and rigorous physical exam, ranking 2,144 out of 80,000 statewide.
Asked where he preferred to work, the Baldwin Harbor resident checked the box for Long Island. It might as well been for The Twilight Zone.
Five years passed before someone told Rice that he was being passed over because senior officers working in New York City snapped up the L.I. posts. By then, the state was taking people listed at 12,000 on the ranking list - well past his 2,144 placing.
“I realized I had made a mistake and paid a price,” Rice said.
So he immediately changed his preference from Long Island to New York CIty. Within two days, he was contacted to take a new round of physical exams.
Rice thought his luck had changed.
It was now 2009, and he began taking the time-consuming battery of tests and background checks, which spilled deep into 2010. He did not mind traveling back and forth to the city to take them. In December he aced the grueling physical exams and received formal notice to report for his dream job on Jan. 6, 2011.
Excited beyond words, Rice did everything he had to, including purchasing hundreds of dollars worth of required clothing and equipment, right down to kneepads, calf-high socks and special iron-on letters, and stuffed them into the government-mandated duffel bag he also had to buy.
But on Jan. 5, at 5 p.m., 12 hours before he was to start working at the officers' academy in Manhattan, Gov. Andrew Cuomo was sworn in and the legislature immediately announced a hiring freeze. That news came in a brusque phone call.
“I said to the guy who called me, ‘What am I supposed to tell my wife? How am I going to feed my kids?’”
“He said, ‘Can’t you get your [old] job back?’”
"I told him, ‘I gave notice and trained my replacement like any decent manager would do,” he said. “Suddenly, I was out of work with four children and was devastated."
Dennis Quirk, the court officers’ union president, said Rice “unfortunately was caught in the whole budget process mess.”
It took months for Rice to find another job and get “back on my feet” while waiting for the hiring freeze to end.
Finally, last October 2012, he received word hiring was starting.
“I was beyond excited that my wait had finally come to an end,” he said.
But then Hurricane Sandy roared in, wrecking his home, crushing his wife’s home day care business and devastating his parent’s home, his father-in-law's home and his sister-in-law’s as well, which are all on Long Island's south shore.
“I knew it was really bad when the National Guard came to hand out food and clothing,” he recalled. The storm forced him and his extended 11-member clan ,including children, to move into his father-in-law’s camper van while they tackled the damage.
The hurricane also pushed back his starting date again.
He did not even have a suit to wear — as required — when it was finally time to take the tests again. Also, he was suddenly warned that he would not be able to take the tests any more should he fail any aspect of them.
But he sucked it up, took the written tests and then cranked through the sit-ups, chin ups, stationary bike and aerobics.
Examiners took his pulse and said he would get his results in the mail, which came just after Thanksgiving.
His heartbeat was 158 beats per minute, two beats above the maximum heart rate allowed.
“You are disqualified, no longer a candidate, have a nice day,” Rice characterized the letter.
“I was certain they would have understood that my heart rate would have been elevated just from what had been going on with in my life . . . dealing with the hurricane, no home, short on income, lack of sleep, poor nourishment,” Rice said.
“Words can't describe the range of emotions I feel,” Rice said. “This was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I set my heart on it. I feel like the rug has been ripped out from beneath me.”
Rice’s only option now is to start all over and take the test again as though nothing had happened before, and line up behind 20,000 candidates on the most recent list.
“But I am 37-years-old with a family to feed,” he said, explaining that another eight year wait seems out of the question.
“None of this seems fair,” said Rice.