Sandra Fox spends her days working the poverty line.

As an eligibility worker for the Orange County Social Services Agency, Fox is a first responder to the needs of tens of thousands in Orange County who struggle to afford the basics of survival — food, shelter and medical care.

And though the need keeps increasing — the number of Orange County residents receiving food stamps increased by 126 percent during the last fiscal year — the county workforce that administers this aid keeps shrinking. The agency has lost more than 330 employees since the 2006-2007 fiscal year.

It is up to Fox and her colleagues to somehow cope with this unsustainable trend and try each day to be the smiling face of Orange County to those residents who are facing the hardest times. The single mother of two will tell you that it isn’t easy and on some days seems impossible.

As part of our ongoing effort to gain a better understanding of how county government works on a daily basis, Voice of OC posed questions to Fox, who heads the Orange County local of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The questions range from the realities of her workdays to the status of AFSCME’s negotiations with the county.

What made you want to become a social worker? Was it something you developed a passion for over time, or did you have a specific experience that made you understand the importance of social workers to society?

I became an eligibility worker by accident back in 1991 when the county was in desperate need of bilingual workers because of the immigration changes. I was an assistant manager at Nordstrom Cafe, and my mom’s friend gave me the information to come and apply for the county. I did so I could stop working on the weekends. It was the best decision I ever made, because the work is so gratifying. We are here to serve the public when they are in the greatest need, and it is very rewarding to help people who are so vulnerable or down on their luck.

Is there a particular case or a person (you, of course, don’t have to name the person) who sticks out in your mind as an example of how the work you do makes a difference?

As a 22-year employee of Social Services, my job has definitely affected my whole life. I have been influenced by so many cases — so many people with so many different stories of hard luck and from such different walks of life — that it’s impossible to pick just one. But I will give you one example.

One woman who was an educated professional and a well-dressed practicing attorney in the community found herself suddenly on the street. She had lost her job during the economic downturn and eventually lost her home to foreclosure. By the time she came to me our agency for assistance, ironically, this woman was literally sleeping out of her Mercedes Benz! That really says it all, how far and fast any of us can slide from the middle class. But because of the services that we were able to provide to her, we were able to prevent her from starvation and total despair.

The profile of our clients is not what you hear on the news — the homeless drunk or lazy bum on the corner. No, the economy has forced people that used to live on beachfront property to ask for food stamps and medical assistance. Some have battled cancer. Some were sexually or physically abused. But thanks to this program, eligibility workers can make a difference and ensure that many families in Orange County are safe and living under a roof.

Years of budget cuts have taken their toll on all areas of local government. How in particular have they affected the Social Services Agency? Provide a sense of how your caseloads and priorities have changed over the years.

Our caseloads are out of control. We don’t know where to begin each day because it is so overwhelming. We have so many mandates to meet and deadlines to make that we pull our hair out trying to juggle all of the work. My co-workers and I are stressed to a point of breaking at times. But we go on, because the work is essential. The work we do affects real people directly, so it is not like we can just say, “Oh, I won’t do that case because I am too busy and it’s time for me to go home.” There is not one worker in our program who will tell that they are not overburdened. With the economy so bad, people are in the greatest need ever, and yet the county’s support so that we can serve this need is severely limited. With unemployment ending for some of our cases, and Healthy Families [Program] going away due to state budget cuts, it is only getting worse every day.

Social Services Agency Director Dr. Michael Riley spoke to Voice of OC about how the Great Recession has, in some respects, changed the clientele that the agency serves. In particular, he said you serve more people who were recently middle-class taxpayers and can be more demanding and expect more services. What has been your experience?

That is exactly right. See the example above. She is just one of the statistics he cites. It should really give all of us reason to realize that the cases are not just negative stereotypes — that our work is important and moral, because we should take care of our own.

This is a big contract year for the county’s unions, and your union’s workers have gone several years without raises. What are the arguments that you are putting forth at the bargaining table regarding what your workers deserve?

We have sacrificed for many years in a row because of the hard times, but enough is enough. We are at the breaking point. We are proud to serve, but like everyone else, we also need to pay the rent, buy groceries and send our kids to college one day. It is not much of an exaggeration to say I am one paycheck away from standing on the other side of the desk. Almost all of us feel the same way. The fact that we have not received a raise in six years makes it very hard to keep up with the cost of living.

[Board of Supervisors Chairman John] Moorlach and others tell us they appreciate the work we do for the county, but it is just lip service. The county has the funding — we know that — and it is time that management steps up as we have done year after year, because these are the big wage earners with the big fancy pensions and perks, not us. It is all just a matter of budget priorities, but ultimately I believe the people of Orange County care about our community and will speak out for us and the services we provide.

Incidentally, the press often just repeats myths about rank and file public employees without bothering to do the research about our actual compensation and benefits versus that of management. We are not the budget problem, and it is time for management to pay their share. I encourage everyone in Orange County to look up the truth and see where the real financial burden of taxpayers lies.

We never expected to get rich doing the work we do, but that doesn’t mean we should have to fall into poverty ourselves. Contrary to popular myth, we do not have fat pensions. We barely make ends meet each month. All we are saying is, we deserve a fair contract and a modest raise after all these years of agreeing to concessions, because we need to keep our families afloat.

What is the mark that you want to leave on the Social Services Agency?

My mark, I hope, is my assistance and service to the agency. I go out of my way to make sure my clients have everything they need. That is not to say the services or support that eligibility workers provide is sufficient. Struggling families who come to ask for help are always in shock to see how little of a benefit they do qualify for. But at least it is something. And at least I know that I did the best I could for them.

— Interview by DAVID WASHBURN

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