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Los Angeles County social workers strike citing high caseloads, first strike of its kind in a decade

Striking workers outside the Department of Children and Family Services office south of downtown Los Angeles on Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013.
Rina Palta/KPCC
Striking workers outside the Department of Children and Family Services office south of downtown Los Angeles on Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013.

Los Angeles County social workers say their strike was a last resort after petitioning for months for lower caseloads. Officials say they're already hiring more social workers.

About 1,600 social workers with the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services picketed outside offices around the county Thursday, the first strike of its kind in a decade. 

Negotiations broke down Wednesday night as negotiators with the Service Employees International Union, Local 721 declared an impasse. On Thursday, striking workers said they're overworked and overwhelmed by high caseloads. 

"We can't make the right decisions when we don't see our families enough, we're so overwhelmed by paperwork and all kinds of other things that cases involve," said Delmi Madrigal, a social worker with DCFS for about five years. 

In comparable metropolitan areas, caseloads are lower. Chris Mckniff, a spokesman for the New York Administration for Children’s Services, said social workers in New York City have about nine investigations into child abuse open at any given time. In Chicago, according to Karen Hawkins of the Department of Children and Family Services of Illinois, social workers investigate nine to ten new cases a month.

In Los Angeles, the average investigator has 19 open cases. A worker who's assigned a child in foster care carries an average of 31 cases. (New York and Chicago largely contract out for that continuing oversight.)

"We can't do it, we're not going to make the right decisions in that kind of environment," Madrigal said.

She said social workers in the county have gotten a bad reputation in recent months, with high profile deaths of children who'd had contact with the department. She said lower caseloads would improve the quality of work.

But L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said a labor contract is no place for setting staffing levels for any county worker, whether sheriff's deputies, clerical workers or social workers.

"We can't be locked down and bound to a level of hiring through a collective bargaining agreement," Yaroslavsky said. "What if we have another recession in the next 18 months?"

He said the county has never and will never set staffing levels in such a contract.

The Board of Supervisors has recently approved 300 new hires, which he says should help with the caseloads issue. But, he said, staffing levels are not the only or most serious of the child welfare department's maladies. A bigger issue, he said, is eliminating a lot of the red tape that goes along with a social worker's everyday tasks. 

"Throwing more bodies into the system just means more people operating in an inefficient system," Yaroslavsky said.

DCFS Director Philip Browning said he thinks there are three components critical to reforming the department:

  • Caseloads
  • Training
  • Technology

Browning said he's been working closely with staff to address issues workers notice in the department. 
"I'm really surprised it's come to this," Browning said of the strike.

Representatives for the SEIU Local 721 said the strike would continue Friday. Meanwhile, administrators with DCFS are filling in for striking workers.