The death of a San Diego County social worker has led her colleagues to call on the county to do more to protect them from the coronavirus, which they say the woman caught in the field.
Sixty-year-old Ronda Felder, a former foster child herself, died this month after spending almost a month in the hospital.
At a vigil this week organized by SEIU Local 221, the union to which Felder belonged, her mourning black-clad co-workers said they are willing to do their job to protect and help vulnerable children, but that amid the pandemic they risk their health every time they make a home visit.
The least the county can do in return, they said, is to provide the employees with sufficient personal protective equipment and give them hazard pay. Moreover, they said the county should hire more employees to ease their workload.
“We have an obligation to, of course, serve the community, children and families we work with, but we also have the obligation to come back to our families at night,” said social worker Crystal Irving at the vigil, CBS News 8 reported.
Felder’s death is emblematic of a larger problem, said Shane Harris, president of the nonprofit People’s Alliance for Justice and a foster care advocate who spent much of his youth in the child welfare system: the lack of data regarding the prevalence of the virus in the foster care system.
Harris called on San Diego County to gather that data and share it with the public as soon as possible to inform efforts to prevent the virus’s spread within child welfare circles.
“Ronda Felder’s death is a call to action for our system,” he said, “to bring everybody to the table to chart a path for the foster community, our social workers, our kids and, of course, the parents who foster them.” Harris said they deserve “a clear picture of this pandemic.”
In an email to CBS News 8 in San Diego, the county said it was “committed to prioritizing the health and safety of our staff during this pandemic. We have rigorous safety procedures for every time a social worker comes in contact with a client to keep everyone as safe as possible.”
When the county gets calls about potential child abuse, hotline social workers ask questions about potential exposure to the virus within the home, according to the email. In addition, workers going out on home visits have been advised to take precautions by wearing masks, maintaining social distance and observing all other COVID protocols. Protective gear is made available to all frontline staff, the email continued.
But union officials say the workers must often buy their own gear, or ill-advisedly use the county-provided equipment over and over.
San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, who attended the vigil for Felder, told SEIU members he backed their call for more protection. He said he proposed hazard pay for frontline workers but there was not enough board support to move the proposal forward.