More than 120 Fresno County Department of Social Service (DSS) workers formed an informational picket line on their lunch break on Sept. 13 to protest poor working conditions that result in poor public assistance services for foster youth, families and community residents seeking support for food, jobs and healthcare.
“For example, the two new child welfare services buildings that were solutions offered by Fresno County in 2021, Mod C and Clovis Campus Building 5, fall short of providing the best public services and support when county administrators dismiss, delay or refuse to collaborate on best practices with DSS workers,” states a press release distributed to the local media by SEIU Local 521, of Fresno, the union that represents social services workers.
One speaker from the union explained further: “In 2021, when workers disclosed to the public that children in Child Protective Services (CPS) custody sleep on conference tables and yoga mats, county administrators explained that children sleeping in offices was only temporary, and they pointed to capital projects as a solution to the temporary placement in county offices.
“Administrators further explained they were in the process of building/renovating two state-of-the-art facilities with bedding and proper services. The buildings were used as the argument that they offered new living conditions and [that administrators] were eager to complete these capital projects.
“The issue is that buildings are only a piece of the solution when social workers ask for support in getting children education and mental health tools. Administrators will ‘look into options’ but not return with concrete pathways or programs.”
DSS workers’ informational picket comes on the heels of another DSS protest at Clovis Campus Building 5, where youth are processed into county custody. On Aug. 30, the Emergency Response Team held a department check-in/Q&A.
The social workers on the Emergency Response Team felt this was an opportunity to organize a silent protest in tandem with the meeting and be heard on the living and working conditions that administrators fail to address. The silent protest consisted of workers not taking seats in the auditorium, but instead holding up signs at the back of the large room with various messages.
The protest was silent but powerful enough that when managers were taking questions from the workers in the audience, workers asked pointed questions and follow-up questions on improving public services to foster youth from when a child enters the CPS system to permanent placement.
The director miscategorized the silent protest holding signs at the back of the room, which is protected union activity, as hostile and intimidating. Administrators later produced a scornful letter condemning the action.
DSS Director Sanja Bugay and Fresno County Chief Administrative Officer Paul Nerland are familiar with these concerns. However, no concrete action or plans have been realized to substantially partner with frontline workers to improve working conditions around retention, safety, training or providing for the specialized needs of foster youth.
Over the past year, county officials have scheduled and participated in meetings with social workers in the Child Welfare Services department and their union reps but have fallen short on building concrete plans or next steps to improving safe working conditions and better overall support for youth in CPS custody.
At the picket line and press conference on Sept. 13, DSS workers in the areas of medical services, food stamps and job assistance united to demand better working conditions. Additional speakers included Fresno City Council Members Miguel Arias and Luis Chavez, who is a foster parent.
Council Member Garry Bredefeld could not attend the event but publicly provided a statement in support of the workers who took part in the informational picket: “There is a culture in [Fresno] County where staff workers’ concerns are being ignored and the administration and the Board of Supervisors…turn a blind eye to these issues and ignore them.
“Workers are being given caseloads that are completely unmanageable, the DSS is understaffed [and] the working conditions are so poor they are unable to maintain staff.”
“I’ve been a foster parent for six years. I can tell you from my experience that social workers do amazing work. With the trauma children go through, [social workers] are all essential and know exactly what the solutions are,” said Chavez.
“What has happened to children in Fresno County care is a sad situation. This is not a people problem, this is a system problem.”
Lorraine Ramirez, a social worker, says that the county’s “DSS workers take every opportunity to speak up for ourselves and our families [via the] Foster Care Oversight Committee, work groups, advisory board meetings [and] labor-management meetings. We even met with Chief Administrative Officer Paul Nerland.
“The problem is that when we offer solutions, ideas, they tell us ‘thanks for raising the concern,’ or ‘we will circle back on this.’ They don’t ever circle back.”