Los Angeles County supervisors lifted a hiring freeze on children's services workers Tuesday, responding to their complaints of overwork by authorizing at least $500,000 to hire more people.
Employees in the county Department of Children's Services had complained that they were handling far more cases than the maximum allowed by state and county guidelines.
The social workers had threatened to stop accepting new cases beginning today, but after the board vote they agreed to postpone any work action until county officials can present details of their hiring plan next week.
"I think it's safe to say that this is a major victory for the children and children's social workers throughout Los Angeles County," said Phil Ansell, a spokesman for Local 535 of the Service Employees International Union, AFL-CIO, which represents about 900 social workers involved in the dispute.
"We had been told for six months that there was just no more money, and everybody should just grin and bear it . . . but that threatened refusal (to accept new cases) has made the impossible happen," Ansell added.
In removing the hiring freeze, the supervisors directed Richard Dixon, the county's chief administrative officer, to find at least $500,000 that department officials said could be used to hire 40 or 50 more caseworkers.
The board emphasized that bilingual caseworkers should be among the first employees hired.
Department caseworkers provide a number of services, including working with child abuse victims, parents, single mothers, foster homes and dependent children referred by juvenile courts for adoption,.
Social workers who addressed the board Tuesday said their workloads are often double or triple the state standard, and both employee and client have suffered as a result.
Robert Appleby, an adoption worker, told supervisors his current caseload is 105 cases compared to the state recommended level of 48. "We are in a serious crisis that without your immediate action will subject innocent children and families to abuse and neglect," he warned supervisors.
The department has been in a months-long hiring freeze because of the lack of state money, which pays for much of the children's services budget. Robert Chaffee, director of the children's services department, said the funding pinch is expected to ease in July when the new fiscal year begins.
But Supervisor Ed Edelman argued that the county cannot wait until the summer to begin easing the load of county caseworkers, even if it means taking money from other departments.
"This is too critical a need to just wait and play the game in Sacramento," said Edelman of the uncertainty over state funding. Other supervisors agreed, voting 4-0 to authorize the increases.