For the first time in over a decade, 3,500 social workers who care for Los Angeles County's most vulnerable children went on strike Thursday to protest their excessive caseloads and demand the hiring of additional workers.
The county Department of Children and Family Services -- understaffed even before the walkout -- scrambled to have managers with field experience respond to emergency calls about abused and neglected children, and is seeking help from other agencies.
The social workers are part of the Service Employees International Union Local 721, which has been trying for months to secure a new contract for its 55,000 members, about half of the county's workforce.
Though both sides tentatively agreed on a 6 percent pay raise in three installments, a $500 bonus, and additional health care and retirement benefits, the labor negotiations reached an impasse Tuesday over hiring additional social workers and over when the third installment of the pay raise would take effect.
Because of the standoff, all SEIU members will have to continue waiting for a new contract. The rest of the county's unions received their own pay raise two months ago.
David Green, a social worker on the picket line at the DCFS's South LA office insisted, "It's not about the money."
He said an American Humane Association study concluded 13 years ago that the social workers' ideal caseload is 14 children, yet those at DCFS sometimes have double or triple that number. He said this is an unfair labor practice that puts children at risk.
"We care so much about these children that we're willing to strike today, go without pay, march, do whatever it takes to send a message that our decision makers need political will to ensure child safety," Green said.
On the picket line in Torrance, supervising social worker Joan Marks complained the job has become more demanding in recent years because of new requirements to extend foster care to 18- to 21-year-old adults, continue working with families who have moved away, and seek search warrants through the court system when denied entry into a home.
"Workers are going out every other day on stress leave," she said. "We want to do service for our clients, spend more time with them, make sure there's quality care."
Another social worker, Almira Garza, said 2,200 children did not get a visit from their social worker last month.
"There was not enough time, and (social workers) are already working overtime, weekends, nights," she said. "They're exhausted."
DCFS Director Philip Browning has tapped 300 to 400 managers to take over the striking social workers' duties.
"What we've done is to identify what are our most critical areas, and that's emergency response, the hotline, and the command post," he said.
Browning said the department is also relying on volunteers to answer phone calls and perform other administrative duties. He has reached out to foster family agencies and group homes to provide additional help.
Browning added the department was actively recruiting social workers when SEIU called a strike.
"By this time next year, I expect the caseloads will drop 30 percent from the current average of 31 to the low- to mid-20s," Browning said.
Some members of the union want an even smaller caseload than that -- 14 -- but Browning said the study that recommended was conducted before iPhones and other technological advances boosted social worker efficiency.
County Chief Executive Officer William Fujioka said he hopes SEIU will sign a contract with the same terms that other unions have already accepted, and then deal with the staffing problem.
"They're asking for 1,300 social workers, but would that be the most effective use of our resources?" Fujioka asked. "I've always believed the solution is not just adding people -- it's more important to also look at what needs to be done to improve the efficiency of social workers."
Fujioka said 21 of SEIU's 24 bargaining units have already reached a settlement with the county, The social workers are the only holdouts, but that's enough to scuttle the contract. ___
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