Orange County Supervisors says officials are close to finalizing a new contract with Social Services Agency workers tasked with helping residents process applications for benefits like CalFresh food stamps and MediCal.
Supervisor Doug Chaffee said in a Monday phone interview that the county and the union representing eligibility workers – the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees – have agreed to a three-year contract with pay raises.
“I think we’ve reached agreement from the management and the union,” Chaffee said, unable to provide specifics as to what that agreement will entail.
“That’s all done, and it’ll be coming out.”
Supervisors are slated to meet behind closed doors Tuesday with a labor negotiator and get an update regarding the terms and conditions of employment for social workers represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Supervisor Katrina Foley said in a Monday phone interview that the contract will be on the agenda for the Nov. 7 meeting for a final vote and that the agreement will be available online today.
“These are critical, essential workers that are making sure that people don’t fall through the cracks and that they have that safety net that people rely on in times of struggle,” she said.
“I want to make sure that we are addressing their issues.”
The new contract comes after the employees have increasingly said they are overworked and underpaid as they try to help the county’s poorest residents.
Social workers have also demanded better staffing levels and pay.
About eight eligibility workers spoke out about their work conditions at the Oct. 17 supervisors meeting telling elected officials they are doing an impossible job.
Kendra Romans, an eligibility technician, said people at her job have fainted or had panic attacks over the stress of the workload and increased costs of living have driven up the demand in Orange County for public benefits.
“I have two little girls and my family is eligible for food stamps based on the salary I received from social services. That’s not right. The job at the social services agency is to help the indigent population not create it,” she said at the meeting.
Diana Corral – president of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 2076 representing OC eligibility workers – said she was unavailable for comment Monday because of a family emergency.
Last month, OC eligibility workers hit the picket lines demanding better pay and increased staffing.
Foley said Monday that the raise should erase the need for eligibility workers to seek benefits of their own.
“That’s a priority for me. I worry about people working fulltime and still being eligible for benefits to me that seems wrong,” she said.
Hanh Le, who has worked 13 years at the County of Orange, said the staffing shortage at the social service agency is being ignored and tens of thousands calls go unanswered every month as a result.
“The county has set staffing levels up to fail the community. Despite the repeated requests they have refused to hire enough staff,” she said at the Oct. 17 meeting “The system is broken, the community and the workers are paying for it and this isn’t right.”
Employees also said they are underpaid compared to eligibility workers in other countries despite OC being home to many large corporations.
None of the supervisors responded to the workers after their comments at the meeting.
An Tran, the director of the OC Social Services Agency, said in a Monday email that eligibility workers have a tough job especially with the heightened demand in recent years during the pandemic and now the end of COVID emergency benefits this year.
“Hiring more eligibility professionals is a priority. In fact, our Agency has a ‘negative’ vacancy rate — in other words, rather than having empty spots, we have more eligibility professionals than originally authorized due to certain flexibilities given to us by the County,” he wrote.
Supervisor Vicente Sarmiento said in a Monday statement the contract will address pay, but not hiring more workers.
“I know many of our workers are working overtime. However, I am concerned about unmanageable workloads and want to monitor the situation more,” he said.
Foley said Monday the county is “aggressively staffing up the department” and she is looking into safety concerns raised by workers.
“It takes a bit of time to get people trained and so that process is ongoing right now,” she said. “The volume of cases is increasing because people are struggling financially and so I want to make sure that we have sufficient staff, for them to be able to help people and also to not have burnout.”
The demands come after workers like Corral, Le and Romans helped hundreds of thousands of residents get access to public benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting government-mandated shutdowns.
Earlier this year, food bank leaders and Social Service Agency officials warned that California’s most vulnerable residents were heading for a food cliff amid historic inflation and a decrease in food benefits at the end of the state’s emergency declaration over the COVID-19 pandemic.
They directed affected residents to speak with the agency.
At the same time, CalOptima leaders warned that the termination of the COVID emergency could mean 146,000 poor residents could lose their MediCal health coverage.
As of July, over 294,100 people are enrolled in CalFresh – food stamp benefits for low income families – in Orange County, according to a state database.
MediCal’s total membership counts 973,571 OC residents.
Over half the population of Santa Ana and nearly half the population in Anaheim are enrolled in Orange County’s public health care plan for the poor.
The Social Service Agency has 1,564 eligibility workers, according to a September email from agency spokesperson Jamie Cargo.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
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