Striking Child Welfare Workers Still Out in the Cold

Social workers say they want a lighter case load but county officials say pay raises are the real reasons workers are striking.

Getty Images
Getty Images

City News Service

Seven county social workers were arrested Tuesday as hundreds of striking workers protested outside the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors meeting.

Four women and three men were arrested during a planned act of civil disobedience, when they refused to leave the area after being warned by police that the permit for the rally had expired, according to Officer Sara Faden of the Los Angeles Police Department's Media Relations office.

A union member said he hoped the arrests would grab the attention of county officials.

"The Board of Supervisors hadn't even acknowledged our struggle," said union steward Michael Aguilera, who was not arrested.

As the crowd of social workers shouted and chanted outside the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration Tuesday morning, the county's chief executive officer expressed frustration with the negotiating process.

Child welfare workers with the Department of Child and Family Services are asking for lower caseloads, a demand the county says it's willing to meet.

"What is a little frustrating is that the department's commitment is absolute," county CEO William Fujioka told the board.

About 100 social workers have already been hired and will take on full caseloads next month. Another 150 are set to go through DCFS training in January and February, and the department will ask the board  for additional hires shortly, Fujioka said.

The union wants 35 new hires every month until 595 new social workers are brought on board to be assured of a maximum caseload of 30 children per social worker, according to Service Employees International Union Local 721 spokesman Lowell Goodman.

Based on the hires already in the pipeline, DCFS Director Philip Browning has estimated that the average caseload would come down to 29 by January and as low as the mid-20s by August.

Though the two sides seem to be headed in the same direction, negotiations broke down and about 4,000 DCFS social workers struck Dec. 5.

Union members say they want to see the county's hiring commitments in writing.

"At DCFS, our motto is, if it's not in writing, it didn't happen," Aguilera said.

A county spokesman said management's unwillingness to agree to a retroactive raise was the real reason the union walked away from the bargaining table.

The union and county have tentatively agreed on a 6 percent pay boost — 2 percent in each of the three contract years — along with bonuses and a hike in county contributions to employee health care costs in 2014 and 2015.

But SEIU 721 is asking for one of the 2 percent increases to take effect two months earlier than the date of the contract. That retroactive wage hike would be unfair to other county bargaining units and a violation of county bargaining practices, county spokesman David Sommers said.

"We've never done it and we're not going to start doing it now," he said Monday, referring to retroactive raises.

But a union rep said the earlier start date was to make up for what the SEIU contends are stalling tactics by the county.

SEIU leaders continued to place the focus on child safety and work conditions.

"When the strike started last week, some observers suggested that it couldn't be really about child safety, it must be about money," SEIU Regional Director Michael Green told the board Tuesday. "Your employees have sacrificed hundreds if not thousands of dollars of their own families' income in order to finally stand up for the most vulnerable children in Los Angeles County."

Green said social workers want a reduction in burdensome, duplicative administrative policies that do little to help children, training in place of finger-pointing and a mobile worker program.

Fujioka said that DCFS was about to unveil an online manual that would reduce paperwork by 25 percent and was rolling out smartphones and tablets to social workers.

The union also alleges unfair labor practices by the county, including tactical withdrawals of earlier agreements.

Asked what it would take to get the union back to the table, Goodman replied, "a new proposal."

"We're ready to continue discussions," Fujioka told the board.

An outside mediator brought in Monday was trying to bring the sides together, but Goodman said no new terms had been advanced.

A majority of the other bargaining units representing SEIU 721's roughly 55,000 members have reached agreement on most issues. Most other county unions already have new contracts in place.


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