By ELIZABETH MARCELLINO
City News Service
After a raucous day of protests highlighted by the arrests of seven people, a six-day old work stoppage by Los Angeles County social workers came to an end Tuesday, with union officials saying they will return to the bargaining table.
Social workers who walked off the job Thursday were expected back at work Wednesday. The resumption of labor talks was bargained by a mediator brought in by the county, officials said.
"Today the county got the message loud and clear," according to Bob Schoonover, president of Service Employees International Union Local 721 on Tuesday. "When they saw the incredible solidarity of our members on the street, the supervisors knew they had to act. And now I'm hopeful that we can work through the mediator to reach a settlement with the county."
Four women and three men taking part in a strike rally were arrested in downtown Los Angeles during a planned act of civil disobedience. Los Angeles police Officer Sara Faden said the seven refused to leave the area after being warned by police that the permit for the rally.
As the crowd of social workers shouted and chanted outside the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration this morning, the county's chief executive officer expressed frustration with the negotiating process.
Child welfare workers with the Department of Child and Family Services are asking for lower caseloads, a demand the county says it's willing to meet.
"What is a little frustrating is that the department's commitment is absolute," county CEO William Fujioka told the Board of Supervisors.
About 100 social workers have already been hired and will take on full caseloads next month. Another 150 are set to go through DCFS training in January and February, and the department will ask the board for additional hires shortly, Fujioka said.
The union wants 35 new hires every month until 595 new social workers are brought on board to be assured of a maximum caseload of 30 children per social worker, according to SEIU Local 721 spokesman Lowell Goodman.
Based on the hires already in the pipeline, DCFS Director Philip Browning has estimated that the average caseload would come down to 29 by January and as low as the mid-20s by August.
Though the two sides seem to be headed in the same direction, negotiations broke down and about 4,000 DCFS social workers struck last Thursday.
Union members say they want to see the county's hiring commitments in writing.
"At DCFS, our motto is, if it's not in writing, it didn't happen," union steward Michael Aguilera said.
A county spokesman said management's unwillingness to agree to a retroactive raise was the real reason the union walked away from the bargaining table.
The union and county have tentatively agreed on a 6 percent pay boost — 2 percent in each of the three contract years — along with bonuses and a hike in county contributions to employee health care costs in 2014 and 2015.
But SEIU 721 is asking for one of the 2 percent increases to take effect two months earlier than the date of the contract. That retroactive wage hike would be unfair to other county bargaining units and a violation of county bargaining practices, county spokesman David Sommers said.
"We've never done it and we're not going to start doing it now," he said Monday, referring to retroactive raises.
But a union rep said the earlier start date was to make up for what the SEIU contends are stalling tactics by the county.
SEIU leaders continued to place the focus on child safety and work conditions.
"When the strike started last week, some observers suggested that it couldn't be really about child safety, it must be about money," SEIU Regional Director Michael Green told the board Tuesday. "Your employees have sacrificed hundreds if not thousands of dollars of their own families' income in order to finally stand up for the most vulnerable children in Los Angeles County."
Green said social workers want a reduction in burdensome, duplicative administrative policies that do little to help children, training in place of finger-pointing and a mobile worker program.
Fujioka said that DCFS was about to unveil an online manual that would reduce paperwork by 25 percent and was rolling out smartphones and tablets to social workers.
The union also alleges unfair labor practices by the county, including tactical withdrawals of earlier agreements.
A majority of the other bargaining units representing SEIU 721's roughly 55,000 members have reached agreement on most issues. Most other county unions already have new contracts in place.