Most regional center social workers dont work for the money, but because they care about their clients. They take these difficult jobs because they have an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of some of societys most needy and disabled. But when management makes unreasonable caseload demands on workers, and shuts them out of decisions that affect their jobs and their clients, even the most dedicated leave. A year ago, the Regional Center of the East Bay was not a worker-friendly place to work. Caseloads had been hiked to 70 per worker, contract negotiations were at a standstill, and the center had trouble retaining and recruiting social workers. It was operating with 30 case manager positions vacant.
Even so, workers were trying to make positive changes at their workplace. At the bargaining table, recalls Alex Arcuri, case manager and chapter president, we were asking for basic things like policies and procedures manuals, and a joint labor/management committee to work out some of the centers pressing problems. But, believe it or not, the acting executive director just looked at us and said, Over my dead body.
hankfully, the executive director was terminated and the center hired someone willing to work with the union to improve labor/management relations. First, the chapter was able to finalize the contract, resulting in a labor/management committee. It is so very important for staff to be part of the decision-making process, to be heard, says Arcuri. That way we can work together to serve our clients and eliminate some of the pressing problems that occur when managers make decisions without consulting the people who do the work.
he new 4-year contract includes a 10% wage increase, retirement improvements, and continued health benefits with no co-payment. As a result, the center has reduced to four the number of case manager vacancies and is now working collaboratively with the chapter to recruit and retain more case managers.
There has been a big turnaround from last year, and we are optimistic the center is moving forward and re-establishing our reputation, adds Arcuri. We are getting ready to re-open negotiations on PERS improvement and wage re-openers. Overall, the work environment is on a much more positive note.
The center has also discontinued the widespread use of consultants and temporary staff.That has been an issue for us for quite awhile, not only because it took bargaining unit work away from the union, but it had a negative impact on staffing and community relationship building, says Arcuri. A lot of the consultants werent based in Oakland so they lacked the connections locally-based workers bring to the job and develop once they are here.
The Regional Center of the East Bay, part of the statewide developmental disability service system, serves 11,000 people with developmental disabilities, mental retardation, autism, cerebral palsy, and epilepsy. Each eligible consumer is assigned to a case manager from birth to death, who is responsible for coordinating their needed services.
Our goal is to be a leader in the developmental disabilities field and to build relationships and bridges with other institutions like local hospitals and universities to better serve our clients, adds Arcuri. We try to enable our clients to access the same kinds of services, agencies, and organizations available to all of us.
This year Arcuri was elected chapter president. He has also served on the contract negotiating team, as shop steward, and as vice president. I believe in unions and the value of union representation. Ive always felt that unions are a necessary vehicle for workers because without them workers needs and interests arent considered. In fact, theyre the last thing to be considered.
Ive always felt the best way to change the system is to work within the system, to deal directly with individuals, and be respectful, but to also take a stand if we need to. We had to walk out of negotiations last year because they threatened to unilaterally take away our benefits if we didnt make up the time we were putting in at the bargaining table. They wanted us to put in 40 hours on top of those two or three days at the table. We refused and asked them to leave the union hall where we were conducting negotiations.
The chapter persevered, management dropped their proposal. Our goal is to make sure all workers have a good working situation here and workers receive enough compensation so that they will stay and together make a better agency. The union is the best organization to make this happen.
Despite all the difficulties, negativism from previous administrations, and stress, the staff here has always been hardworking and committed to doing their jobs. At long last, we are optimistic about working things out. The joint labor/management committee is an important ingredient. Representatives from labor and management sitting across from each other, identifying problems, working on issues that affect working conditions, is a real morale booster. Now we are a part of the solution, instead of butting heads. Its a positive step.