About four years ago, social workers in the Butler County Children Services union and management were locked in a contentious contract negotiation that included a strike.
Now, the two sides are almost ready to ratify a new deal after amiable talks. Both sides said the process has been more cooperative for these negotiations.
“It has definitely been more cordial,” union chief Becky Palmer said.
“Certainly there is a different spirit of cooperation between both administration and the union,” County Administrator Charlie Young said. “I think it’s really driven by a mutual respect that wasn’t there a few years ago. It’s something that bodes well for the mission we have to protect the children and preserve families.”
On Aug. 18, 2014, all dressed in royal blue T-shirts carrying signs with messages like “We stand up to bullies” and “Honk for change in Butler County,” about 40 workers began picketing outside Children Services offices on Fair Avenue. Three weeks later, clad in “mourning black,” the case workers returned to work without a contract. Seven months after that, a new deal was reached.
Former Butler County Human Resources Director Jim Davis, who was the lead negotiator for the county, said he had never before experienced a more contentious atmosphere when trying to make a deal.
“All my other dealings with management and labor relation were predicated on good relationships, and that just didn’t exist at Children Services,” he said. “It was very challenging to work in that kind of contentious environment that was unlike any that I’ve experienced.”
The two sides can’t say much about the current talks because they don’t have a final, signed deal, but an agreed-upon solution to a recent problem underlines the changing atmosphere, officials said. Palmer said Children Services has been operating with 12 vacancies in the agency, and some workers have been handling as many as 26 cases — a dozen is an optimal caseload — which she said means they are in “crisis mode.”
Palmer said union officials went to Children Services Assistant Director Julie Gilbert about three weeks ago with a possible solution to the crisis. The idea was to to have permanency workers — there are different divisions that handle the various facets of the agency — take on some of the intervention workers’ caseload to spread the work around.
“Not only did she listen, she addressed the problems and put in place some temporary and some permanent solutions within days,” Palmer said. “Our Permanency Department, case workers, stepped up and are now taking on investigations, permitting other units to catch up on their cases. It has made an incredible difference for the workers.”
JFS Executive Director Bill Morrison said the union workers didn’t have to step outside their duties like this.
“It’s really kind of helpful when the union does participate in this decision making because we’re asking union members to take on additional responsibilities than what their norm is,” Morrison said. “So when you have the union supporting that request, I think it’s very helpful to management. It’s an opportunity for us to work together toward the common goal.”
Vacancies are a perennial issue for children service agencies, officials said. During the year of the strike, Children Services had 45 workers leave, which was a 29 percent turnover rate. The agency also laid off 17 people that year. Gilbert said the turnover rate in 2016 was 13.4 percent and last year it was 14.5 percent.
The turnover rates are often attributed to the high-stress nature of the job.
“It’s very stressful, you are working with families and trying to ensure safety and our goal is to really keep families together and cause the least disruption to a child’s life as possible,” Gilbert said. “That takes a lot of hard work, sometimes you have to be confrontational with families and you have to have hard conversations. You have to get court involved. There’s a lot of secondary trauma staff experience based on what happening.”
Now in the overdose epidemic, the stress is compounded by the fact that social workers are having to tell children their parent or parents have died because of overdoes.
“Because of the stress you end up carrying home with you, it doesn’t stop, this isn’t a 9 to 5 job and it ends,” she said. “You have to figure out ways to take care of yourself, because if you’re not taking care of yourself you’re not going to be able to take care of the families you’re working with. That’s a skill, sometimes people just can’t figure out how to do that, it’s too much.”
Trying to fill vacancies is also difficult, Morrison said, which is why part of the union negotiations is about raising starting wages for new workers so they can be competitive with other counties.
Palmer said she is glad they came to a solution to the worker shortage problem as negotiations continue.
“Ensuring children are safe at this point is the most important mandate,” she said. “I think this further demonstrates that when the union and management work together, problems can be solved.”
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