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Turnout at county strike falls

Social workers keep protesting with rallies outside L.A. County supervisors' offices.

December 10, 2013|Abby Sewell
  • Los Angeles County social workers march through the hallway of County Supervisor Gloria Molina at her office in El Monte. Workers, who have been on strike since last week, rallied at the district offices of the five supervisors Monday to demand reduced caseloads.
Los Angeles County social workers march through the hallway of County Supervisor… (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles…)

Striking social workers rallied outside the district offices of the five Los Angeles County supervisors Monday, while workers with the county Department of Public Social Services picketed in front of their agency's headquarters in the City of Industry.

The Department of Children and Family Services social workers, represented by Service Employees International Union Local 721, have been on strike since Thursday over what they say are excessive caseloads.

About 1,300 children's social workers and supervisors -- 60% of those scheduled to work -- took part in the strike Monday, along with about 200 clerical staff members. The number participating was down slightly from last week, when about two-thirds of social workers and supervisors did not go to work.

All of the 55,000 county workers represented by SEIU Local 721 have been working without a contract for two months, but most of the employees whom the union represents have come to a tentative agreement with the county over wages and benefits.

Mia Blakely-Brown, 46, a social worker out of the Pasadena office, joined protesters outside Supervisor Gloria Molina's office in El Monte. She said she carries a caseload of 40 and been out on stress leave, in part because of the workload.

"The child-to-social-worker ratio is too high. It's difficult to keep the children safe," she said. "I work late hours, sometimes up to 10 o'clock at night, trying to see children and families."

The maximum caseload under the current contract for most social workers is 31, but the union says it should be lower. It wants the county to agree to hire 35 more social workers a month for the next 17 months.

SEIU also called on workers in the Department of Public Social Services -- which handles a variety of assistance programs for low-income residents, seniors and those with disabilities -- to join in the strike Monday. About 450 did, or 4% of the department's workforce.

Many of those workers rallied outside their department's headquarters in the City of Industry. A smaller contingent marched to the office of department head Sheryl Spiller.

"I appreciate you being here, but we don't bargain here. There's nothing I can negotiate with you here," Spiller told the workers. "As far as the county's concerned, I'm sure the county would like to see all of you back to work."

Spiller said there had been an incident at a Public Social Services office in Compton in the morning in which someone had chained the gate of the parking lot shut, although it was not clear whether that was done by protesters.

Salena Coleman, an eligibility worker in the department's Lancaster office, said that although she does not work directly with the children's social workers, their missions overlap.

"This is about our kids and our families, and an injury to one is an injury to all," she said. "Some of my participants actually already lost their kids to DCFS, so they came to us so they can get back on their feet."

SEIU Local 721 President Bob Schoonover said there had been "a little bit of a communication problem" that probably resulted in lower turnout by DPSS workers. Some of the striking Public Social Services workers said managers had discouraged participation.

Apart from the caseload issue, the union has been unable to reach an agreement with the county about the timing of a 6% raise to be included in the new contracts.

Although it was not the stated reason for the strike, Public Social Services workers reached an impasse with management late last month over what Schoonover termed an "eleventh-hour proposal" by management to create a night shift and to move from a case-based to a task-based system of managing work.

"The role of social workers is a vital component of the county's safety net for vulnerable children, and we need to ensure that those who depend on the county to safeguard their welfare are receiving the best possible services," said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. He added that "for the sake of our children, we must get these issues resolved sooner rather than later."

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abby.sewell@latimes.com

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