Dozens of county social workers protested in downtown today to demand smaller caseloads, and their union, SEIU Local 721, filed a lawsuit aimed at forcing the county's hand. (47683)
Dozens of county social workers protested in downtown today to demand smaller caseloads, and their union, SEIU Local 721, filed a lawsuit aimed at forcing the county’s hand. Credit: SEIU Local 721

LOS ANGELES, Calif. — Dozens of county social workers protested downtown today to demand smaller caseloads, and their union filed a lawsuit aimed at forcing the county’s hand.

“What do we want? Child safety. When do we want it? Now,” yelled social workers in a call-and-response demonstration outside the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration. Wearing plainclothes rather than the purple T-shirts favored by the Service Employees International Union, they carried posters showing children at play.

About 65 percent of Department of Children and Family Services social workers who handle continuing cases — rather than initially responding to emergency calls — manage more than 30 children at a one time, according to a union spokesman. Some take on two to three times that number, he said.

SEIU Local 721’s contract expired Oct. 1. Leaders are calling for having social workers handle up to 30 cases or clients each. A 1999 state study cited by the union found that best practices dictate a caseload of 14 children.

Workers say unmanageable caseloads have prevented the in-person follow-ups needed to keep children safe.

DCFS has hired about 250 social workers in an effort to reduce caseloads and instituted training aimed at boosting child safety. The union wants an additional 35 employees hired per month until 1,400 more case workers are on board.

That is just one of the non-economic issues being pressed by the SEIU Local 721 as it negotiates on behalf of roughly 55,000 county workers. Those employees also include nurses, parks workers and librarians, among others.

Labor representatives walked out of a bargaining session with the county Tuesday about 10:30 p.m. and have not returned.

Both sides say the sticking point was an economic one — the county’s efforts to cut retirement benefits for future hires.

The county is trying to find a way to cut the $458 million in annual costs related to maintaining healthcare benefits for retired employees. That package includes what county spokesman David Sommers characterized as a generous PPO insurance plan for employees and their spouses in perpetuity, with a $1 million lifetime cap on benefits.

In exchange for reducing retirement health benefits for future hires only, the county has offered to cover higher healthcare premiums for current employees, Sommers said.

“We would make them whole,” Sommers said.

A union spokesman saw it differently.

“(The county is) holding the healthcare plans hostage in order to slash retirement benefits,” said SEIU spokesman Lowell Goodman.

Chief Executive Officer William Fujioka has said the SEIU can get the same terms as already agreed to by other county unions: a 2 percent wage increase now, 2 percent next year and 2 percent in April 2015.

But those other contracts did not settle healthcare benefits questions. And agreement on healthcare costs is critical because higher premiums could more than offset raises for about half of the SEIU members, according to Goodman.

The threat of a strike hangs over discussions. Members have until Friday to vote on authorizing a strike. Ballots will be counted Saturday.

Sommers said the county was prepared to bring in a third party to mediate the negotiations, but called for union representatives to return to the bargaining table.

“The only way we’re going to get resolution … is by sitting at the table,” Sommers said.

Elizabeth Marcellino | City News Service