Even with More Protective Supplies on the Way, Coronavirus Confusion for Los Angeles Social Workers

L.A. County social workers expect more protective supplies to arrive soon, but some are worried about working conditions as the coronavirus situation intensifies. Photo courtesy of HBO

As Los Angeles County’s Department of Children and Family Services awaits more protective gear for its thousands of social workers, a state directive to child welfare agencies has created tension about how employees will remain protected from coronavirus on the job. 

At issue is whether non-emergency tasks can be performed at home rather than out in the field. 

Over the weekend, the California Department of Social Services sent policy guidance to the state’s 58 counties calling for new approaches to the jobs that take social workers in and out of family homes, as they investigate and monitor cases of reported child abuse and neglect. 

The guidance, jointly issued with the California Department of Public Health, calls for protective gear such as face masks to be used only by “healthy individuals in specific circumstances,” rather than more broadly. Those circumstances, the state clarified, include cases “when staff are in prolonged close contact with someone with a suspected or confirmed COVID-19 infection.”

David Green, an L.A. County social worker and an official with the union representing social workers, is among those taking issue with the state directive.

Green said workers who are investigating cases of potential abuse or neglect should have protective gear “100 percent” of the time, when they go out for face-to-face visits. The multiple layers of federal, state and local directives have created confusion about how and when social workers should be working, he added.

“I’m worried about it, because I don’t think we have all the answers with this virus,” Green said. “We have to accept the fact that some of our social workers are first responders, and they’re frontline workers, and it’s our job to make sure that when they’re going out there to assess for abuse and neglect that we’re giving them the tools to keep themselves and the families they serve safe.”

In a Twitter message on Sunday, Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) Director Bobby Cagle said a shipment of protective gear is coming soon.

 “Although DCFS had in stock a limited amount of masks, gloves and hand sanitizers, like other human services organizations around the country, we were not prepared for a crisis of this magnitude nor for an event expected to last months,” Cagle wrote, adding that he expected “tens of thousands of every item” imminently. 

Aside from protective supplies, social workers have another concern. Some of the department’s 23 offices have sent employees home to work remotely, checking in with children and families by phone if possible. But according to interviews with some county social workers, that option is not available at all offices. Some offices have workers who are out in the field investigating child abuse and neglect in family homes, then coming back to headquarters and sitting next to colleagues in cubicles and compounding risk of contagion. 

In a county news briefing on Monday, DCFS officials said they are in the process of implementing options to work remotely, but that the department “will allow no more than 50 percent of staff to telework due to essential direct services.” 

Still, one social worker who could not give her name due to department policy said that she had to bring her own antiseptic wipes and hand sanitizer to work — the department had not provided disinfecting supplies inside the office. She also said county social workers had been working next to one other, creating a stressful situation.

“I haven’t heard of anyone on the team who’s telecommuting,” she said. “When we’re all in here and I hear people nearby coughing, I just can’t focus. I’m not trying to be overly paranoid, but what are they doing to protect us from each other?”

Jeremy Loudenback is a senior editor for The Imprint, and can be reached at jeremyloudenback@chronicleofsocialchange.org.

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