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Strike Looms Among County Social Workers

Social workers are calling for smaller case loads as part of contract negotiations. But the sticking point has become a pay increase.

A photo by the chronicleofsocialchange.org which also details some of the what has been happening with the county social workers.
A photo by the chronicleofsocialchange.org which also details some of the what has been happening with the county social workers.

Los Angeles County officials were preparing today for a possible Thursday strike by social workers, with contract talks hitting a wall.

According to the county, labor negotiators have reached settlements with 21 of 24 union bargaining units, but talks stalled with the remaining units Tuesday night when Service Employees International Union negotiators declared an impasse.

Social workers have been calling for lower caseloads as part of their labor contract. But county spokesman David Sommers said a main sticking point is a dispute over the timing of a pay raise being offered by the county.

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

Sommers said the union is calling for one of the 2 percent increases to take effect two months earlier than normal, effectively making the raise retroactive.

"This movement would constitute a form of retroactivity which violates the county's bargaining practices and would be unfair to other county bargaining units who negotiated in good faith and settled their contracts on time," Sommers said.

According to a union letter sent to members and obtained by the Los Angeles Times, union officials said the county is "only offering to provide this 2 percent increase after settlement (of negotiations), thereby screwing SEIU 721 members out of at least two months' salary increase."

SEIU Local 721 represents about 55,000 county workers. The Times, citing anonymous union sources, reported that at least some of the county's 4,000 social workers might walk off the job Thursday for a strike of unknown duration.

Union spokesman Lowell Goodman said this afternoon he could not immediately comment on the possibility of a walkout.

Sommers said county officials were aware of the possibility and recognized workers' right to take part in such a job action. But he noted the workers would not be paid by the county while they are on strike.

"If an employee participated in a work action for just one day, that employee would lose more money in a single day than they would gain if the last 2 percent were given two months earlier, as SEIU is demanding," he said.

Union negotiators have been asking the county to enforce a maximum caseload of 30 children per social worker. To reach that yardstick, they want a commitment from the county to hire 35 social workers each month until 595 new hires are brought on board, Goodman said.

Of the 1,035 Department of Children and Family Services social workers who manage cases, 683 are working with 31 children or more, Goodman said.

DCFS has hired 100 additional social workers who will be carrying full caseloads by January and is in the process of screening 150 more, DCFS director Philip Browning said. Another roughly 100 positions are funded.

The DCFS director estimated that the average caseload per social worker would come down to 29 by January and to the mid-20s by August.

But he also stressed that careful screening and background checks are critical for employees in such sensitive positions and take time.

-- City News Service

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