About two-thirds of the social workers in Los Angeles County's Department of Children and Family Services did not show up for work Thursday, the first day of a strike called by the county's largest employee union.
County spokesman Dave Sommers said 1,453 out of 2,192 social workers and supervising social workers who were scheduled to work Thursday did not come in. Nearly 200 clerical workers in the department also failed to report to work.
The social workers are part of the 55,000-member Service Employee International Union, Local 721, which has been working without a contract for more than two months.
Negotiations are currently stalled over the timing of a proposed salary increase and the union's demand that more social workers be hired to reduce caseloads. They say current caseloads are unmanageable and are impacting children's safety.
County Chief Executive Officer William T. Fujioka said the county is in the process of hiring about 250 social workers and plans to hire more, although he would not give an exact number. He said the county has offered to set up a joint labor-management committee to talk about how to deal with caseloads.
Fujioka said he was "disappointed" that the negotiations had deteriorated to the point of a strike.
"We're managing the services the best we can, but the fact that we're not at the table and instead staff have decided to walk off the job and participate in a strike will have an impact on a very vulnerable population," he said.
The union and the county have reached agreement on most contract issues, including a 6% pay raise, a $500 bonus in 2014 and that the county will pick up the employees' increased health premium costs next year. The remaining sticking points are the timing of the raise and the social worker staffing. The union wants the county to agree to hire 35 more social workers a month for the next 17 months to reduce caseloads.
County officials said they will not commit to a specific number of new hires.
"We're not going to incorporate any staffing requirements in a collective bargaining agreement. It's just not done," county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said in an interview. He said the social workers are "holding the rest of their brothers and sisters hostage to their demands, which are not going to be realized."
The timing of raises has also been a sticking point. Both sides have agreed to a 6% raise over three years. The union wants members to receive the same amount of money in raises as if they had settled before their contract expired Sept. 30. County officials said that would violate a longstanding county policy against retroactive raises and would be unfair to other county employees.
Yaroslavsky said he thought that issue was a diversion.
"They're focusing on retroactivity to their members because the real issue is primarily one unit is making demands that will never be met, and in the meantime everyone else's raise is getting held up," he said.
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