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SEIU Local 535 Dragon--Voice of  the Union-- American Federation of Nurses & Social Services Unioin  



Social Worker, Santa Clara County In Home Support Services

Sept-Oct 2001Robert Castillo nest to a UFW emblem

Like everywhere in California, Santa Clara County In Home Support Services have had difficulty recruiting and retaining qualified social workers. They work overtime for extended periods of time as they try to meet the needs of their elderly and disabled caseloads. “We get burned out,” says Robert Castillo, Santa Clara County Worker Chapter president and a social worker himself. “You can only go so far at 110%, 120%, or 130% of your caseload. In one of our offices, workers are working 20 hours a week overtime, on top of their 40-hour work week. No wonder we can’t keep or attract social workers. Who wants to work in that kind of an environment?”

On top of their heavy caseloads, salaries for social workers and eligibility workers are not competitive in the Silicon Valley job market. “The cost of living here is out of this world,” adds Castillo. “How can eligibility workers make it earning $18 or $19 an hour? You just can’t.”

Raised Wages

The chapter decided to do something about it. Following hard bargaining, they increased wages for workers 12.5%. And, following a lengthy arbitration, they began the process of bringing caseloads under control. In a dispute with the county over its unilateral attempt to alter case assignments, an arbitrator ruled in the union’s favor to decrease caseloads nearly 20%. The ruling also established a joint labor/management task force to discuss ongoing issues of caseload and social worker recruitment and retention.
“It was a big victory,” says Castillo who, as a steward, filed the grievance 1½ years ago. “We now have a voice to determine our working conditions, as opposed to someone beating you over the head. There’s a big difference in workers’ attitudes when we’re involved in the everyday decisions that affect our work.”
Castillo has been with the county for 25 years and has served the union as shop steward, vice president, and president. Six to nine months a year Castillo also takes part in the Northern California Grantmaker’s Critical Family Needs/Housing Assistance Program, part of the San Francisco Chronicle’s Season of Sharing Fund. Castillo volunteered to be the county coordinator. “We administer funds for 19 community agencies including the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and the United Way. Most need housing.”

Hard Lessons

Before he came to IHSS, Castillo was a member of the UAW and worked the night shift at Ford Motor Company. It was there that he learned some hard lessons in labor management relations. “There were one to two thousand of us working the night shift. A week before Christmas, the entire shift was laid off,” recalls Castillo. “Without warning, they handed us pink slips. We had been there less than a year. They decided to do it so they wouldn’t have to pay us any severance pay. It was very calculated.”

A few months after Castillo took a job with the county, workers walked out. Even then, they were fighting for caseload standards. “I was still in my probationary period, but I stayed out. I was raised you don’t cross picket lines,” declares Castillo. “I got to know a lot of people whose relationships I’ve maintained to this day. That strike taught me the power of collective action and you don’t improve services for clients at the expense of workers’ rights.

“We work here because we care about people, especially the most vulnerable in our society. But to do our jobs effectively, we need to be respected, paid a decent wage, and participate in the decisions that affect our lives. That’s why I got involved in the union. To ensure that our voices are being heard.”