Unionized caseworkers in Washington’s Department for Children, Youth, and Families are set to receive a meaningful pay increase in 2023 after five months of bargaining — a noteworthy contract for an all-too-often beleaguered workforce.
The pay raise is an attempt to answer the department’s workforce crisis, which mirrors a similar exodus from state-run child welfare agencies across the country. While recruitment and retention were challenging well before COVID-19, ever-heavier workloads and pandemic pressures have added to agencies’ hiring woes.
The Washington raise, bargained on behalf of members of the Washington Federation of State Employees, takes effect in July. It will amount to a 7% cost-of-living adjustment over two years. The contract will also include a 10% raise for some staff, a premium added to the base salary of caseworkers in recognition of their specialized skills and the unique job requirement.
“We as union members exerted our power to say, ‘No you have to care about this,’” said Jeanette Obelcz, president of the Local 889 chapter of the state employees union. “The union strength has helped the state prioritize children.”
COVID-19 made it clear that child welfare work is not the same as the work performed by other state-employed social service specialists, Obelcz said. Child protection workers with obligations to conduct in-home inspections, for example, could not work remotely to avoid infection exposure during the height of the pandemic.
In an emailed statement, Jason Wettstein, a spokesperson for the Department for Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) said if approved by the Legislature, the new contract “would provide a huge compensation boost to our employees,” and “encourage the DCYF workforce as it serves the citizens of ours state.”
Wettstein also said the agreement would help the child welfare agency “attract and retain qualified candidates in critical roles. DCYF hopes the pay increases will better compensate our employees for the important and challenging work our agency is tasked to perform.”
A 17% raise by 2024 would increase caseworkers’ starting salary from $59,000 to $69,000. The top end of the salary range would increase from $79,900 to $93,000 by 2024, according to updated salary ranges published by the state.
The raise is deserved, Obelcz said, and still below what a social worker makes in a hospital or family court.
Jeremy Arp, executive director of the National Association of Social Workers in Washington, said a raise for child welfare staff is always a win. But he added that it’s important to view this raise in context. Caseworkers were underpaid to start with, and the cost-of-living increase is still below the rate of inflation.
In King County for example, a two-child household must make between $85,000 and $111,000 a year before taxes to earn a living wage, according to a national calculator created by a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The Washington raises included in the agreement tentatively ratified on Sept. 29 won’t apply to everyone at the Department for Children, Youth, and Families. The raises will go to case-carrying workers and their supervisors, but not to support staff, administrative assistants, adoption workers and after-hours staff who supervise youth housed in hotels and offices, known as “children without placement.” Union officials say they had sought to include those employees in the wage increases but were unsuccessful in reaching an agreement with the department to raise their pay.
They will, however, receive the cost-of-living adjustment, which will be a 4% pay increase in 2023 and 3% in 2024. Obelcz, who speaks for the union and works as a supervisor of caseworkers in Child Protective Services, Family Reconciliation Services, predicts there will be continued difficulty filling those roles until these workers are also granted a raise.
“It was really disappointing. We couldn’t do this job without them,” Obelcz said of the negotiation’s final outcome. “They should be paid like we couldn’t do this job without them.”
Wettstein said the 10% raise focused “on those who perform visits in unregulated environments — such as private residences — to conduct investigations for allegations of abuse and/or neglect and assess the safety of vulnerable children.” Employees who aren’t eligible for the raise, however, can advance to caseworker and field agent positions.
Still, the raise is considered a start. The department has been under considerable staffing pressure since at least 2007, when a workload report showed the department needed more than 900 additional full-time case-bearing employees to meet its child safety mission. Rather than new hires, the Great Recession led to furloughs and budget cuts the following year, Obelcz said. “We didn’t recover from that.”
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