LOS ANGELES—After six days of striking, Los Angeles County social workers represented by union SEIU 721 returned to work as negotiations with the County’s Board of Supervisors resumed once again Wednesday afternoon.
SEIU 721 President Bob Schoonover made the announcement on Tuesday during a protest at the LA County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) office in Compton that resulted in the arrest of seven protesters.
“Today the County got the message loud and clear,” said Schoonover. “When they saw the incredible solidarity of our members on the street, the Supervisors knew they had to act. And now I’m hopeful that we can work through the mediator to reach a settlement with the County.”
Thousands of children’s social workers began picketing on Thursday, December 5, at various DCFS offices across the county and were joined by fellow union members from the Department of Public Social Services (DPSS) on December 9 and December 10.
As LA County’s largest public labor union, SEIU 721 represents approximately 55,000 public workers, including the County’s 10,000 DPSS workers and 4,000 children’s social workers. Bargaining teams from SEIU 721 and the County Boardof Supervisors have compromised over most issues since the union’s labor contract expired on October 1, but have been unable to agree on how to resolve the problem of children-to-social worker ratios. The children’s social workers began their strike in the name of child safety when County management refused to meet their demands for lower work caseloads.
The social workers argue their large caseloads detract from their ability to provide adequate attention and service to each child. According to a factsheet compiled by SEIU 721, “During the month of October, records show that 2,268 at-risk youth were never even seen by a Children’s Social Worker because social worker-to-child ratios are too high.”
The currently set maximum limit is 31 to 38 cases (or children) per social worker. “The problem is that the vast majority of social workers are working with more than that,” SEIU 721 Communications Director Lowell Goodman told the Canyon News.
The majority of DCFS social workers actually carry 40 to 50, sometimes 60 cases at a given time. “In fact, the number carrying more than 31 cases has increased by an incomprehensible 800 percent in the last 4 years alone,” the union’s factsheet states.
SEIU 721 proposes that the County hires 35 social workers each month for 17 months for a total of 595 new social workers and reduce the maximum caseload number to 21 children per social worker. Goodman said that industry guides and experts say the optimal number of cases per social worker should be closer to 14 or 16.
The LA Board Supervisors told SEIU 721 representatives on December 3 that the County has set aside enough money to hire 500 social workers. “Even if 500 people we hired tomorrow,” Goodman said, “Philip Browning, the Director of the Department of Children and Family Services, says the County needs to hire 1,400.”
Goodman continued, “And even if they hire them, they’re not addressing the issue of caseloads. There needs to be an agreed upon long-term strategic plan to address this problem. Clearly, [County management] can’t hold a hiring fair and solve the problem. The County Board of Supervisors needs to admit there is a problem, address the problem and commit to solving the problem in a comprehensive way that keeps them accountable.”
Los Angeles County Chief Executive Officer, Bill Fujioka, took to Twitter during the strike and posted, “Striking workers talk about protecting kids, yet made the decision to walk out on the very children they’re responsible to protect.” On December 9, Fujioka wrote, “The best way to protect kids is to get back on the job and return to the negotiating table.”
If Wednesday’s negotiation talks collapse again and an agreement is not met, members of SEIU 721 retain the right to return to strike lines.