LA social workers’ strike wins lower caseloads

A six-day strike by social workers at the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) ended when Los Angeles County agreed to implement the workers’ plan for making victims of child abuse and neglect safer.

“It wasn’t easy, but we made history,” said Chychy Ekeochah, chair of the SEIU Local 721 bargaining committee. “Because we put it on the line, the county accepted our Child Safety Now plan. That’s a victory for us and for the children we serve.”

The Child Safety Now plan calls for increasing the number of children’s’ social workers at DCFS, reducing their caseloads, and forging a collaborative effort by the union, management, and stakeholders in the community to increase funding for child protective services.

DCFS social workers provide an array of services to abused and neglected children including finding and overseeing foster parents and working with the children’s birth parents, so that when possible the family can be reunited in a safe environment.

The State of California recommends that an ideal caseload for children’s social workers should be 14 per worker. Social Work, a well respected professional journal, recommends 16.

But as Thao Lam, a former DCFS social worker, explained in a recent column supporting the strikers, DCFS caseloads can reach as high as 50 per worker.

“In our line of work, leaving a job incomplete means a very real chance that a child is injured or killed,” said Lam. “For social workers with unmanageable caseloads, such a nightmare could be just around the corner.”

When bargaining on a new collective bargaining agreement began, members of Local 721 tried to bring these concerns to the attention of management.

Local 721 members also worked with community stakeholders to raise the awareness of the need for lower caseloads.

At a meeting of the Los Angeles County Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection, United Voices for Children, a coalition that included Local 721, urged the commission to support lower DCFS caseloads, to take advantage of new child protective services funding, and to work with community groups and institutions to make these services more effective.

Despite the community support for Child Safety Now, Los Angeles County negotiators balked at accepting the plan.

When the collective bargaining agreement expired in October, Local 721 members, 95 percent of whom had voted to authorize a strike, agreed to keep working in hopes that an agreement could be reached.

To show how important the issue of lower caseloads was to its members, Local 721 organized Unity Breaks–worksite rallies of union members during their breaks.

The Unity Breaks had an effect, and some progress was made toward resolving some of the bargaining issues. The county agreed to a 6 percent raise, and the union agreed to accept higher health care insurance premiums.

But the two sides could not agree on a reduction to caseloads.

After working two months without a new contract, the union on December 4 declared a bargaining impasse and prepared to strike.

The union issued a statement blaming the strike on the county. “County negotiators have acted in bad faith by unilaterally withdrawing their own proposals and failing to consider proposals made by children’s social workers,” read the statement. “The social workers are asking for simple, commonsense reforms to DCFS that would greatly improve their ability to protect children in need.”

The strike began on December 5. The union mobilized members to picket and rally.

Despite pressure, union members stuck together and maintained the strike.

After six days and with the help of a mediator, the county agreed to hire 600 new social workers by the end of the first year of the new tentative agreement.

Prior to the strike, the county had said that it planned to hire more social workers but had not carried through with its commitment.

Language in the contract ensures that the county carries out its commitment and will make caseload reduction goals enforceable.

The county also agreed to reduce social worker paperwork, which at times interfered with the workers’ ability to do their job.

When the county agreed to hire more workers and lower caseloads, Local 721 members returned to work. The timing of when the pay raise goes into effect is still being negotiated.

When the negotiations are complete, members will vote on whether to ratify the tentative agreement.

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