Kern County Department of Human Services employees have reported widespread discontent with working conditions, and some say they fear for their safety after several recent incidents.
As the department’s administration attempts to grapple with several issues brought up by employees, complaints are arising in different areas. A department spokeswoman said the administration was trying to address safety and workload issues raised by employees.
At least one employee appealed to the Kern County Civil Service Commission, an independent ruling body that conducts appeal hearings on disciplinary matters, alleging that she was retaliated against for union activity. The appeal was investigated and dismissed after the employee said she only wanted the commission to be aware of conditions in the department.
Another employee has filed a claim with the county, seeking more than $10,000 for what she says is a wrongful termination.
In a letter sent to the Board of Supervisors as part of the claim, a law firm representing employee Monica Fitzgerald said she had witnessed unethical behavior while working for Child Protective Services in 2016, which included several individuals using false evidence to have children removed from their family.
In addition, a petition is circulating among Human Services employees, asking Director Dena Murphy to enact measures that would lead to better conditions.
Multiple employees say they have been forced to work long hours and through their lunch breaks due to the high workload.
“We have endured verbal abuse, physical abuse, unsafe working conditions, hostile work environments, and increased workloads with unrealistic expectations that lead to discipline,” states a copy of the petition obtained by The Californian. “Yet, we remained faithful to providing public services to those who are often impoverished, broken, in imminent need, or at a loss when they enter our doors for services.”
It is unknown how many employees have signed the petition, but it began circulating earlier this week.
In response, Human Services spokeswoman Jana Slagle said she could not comment on the claim because of the county’s policy regarding pending litigation. She said she was unaware of the petition, but added that the county was looking into measures that could reduce workloads for employees and address morale issues.
However, she said, those efforts are hindered by the limited budgets passed by the Board of Supervisors each year due to the county’s fiscal situation.
“We are always looking at ways of improving morale,” she said, noting that many Human Services employees help those who are going through personal crises. “We’re trying to help people in tough situations. It’s not an easy environment, but we try to encourage our staff in a lot of different ways.”
But as the top county officials attempt to grapple with the high workloads and low morale among Human Services employees, some say the damage has already been done.
“The problem is that this is creating a public crisis,” said Service Employees International Union local President Veronica Vasquez. “We have a high turnover rate, low retention, lack of recruitment. Our story is in so many ways similar to the sheriff’s.”
She said many employees had long-simmering complaints about working conditions, but had kept silent until two evacuations of the department’s main building at California Avenue and an irate customer who broke the glass of an employee’s station window prompted concerns about safety.
“Members are making it known that they fear for their safety here and they fear for the safety of their clients,” Vasquez said.
On June 3, a customer reportedly shattered a benefit insurance window in the Human Services building.
The next day, the building was evacuated after a man was found hiding in the crawl space of the ceiling.
Then, slightly more than a week later, the building was evacuated again when a man reportedly claimed he had a bomb in his backpack.
Slagle said Human Services administrators are taking steps to ensure employee safety.
“We’re very aware of it and we’re working on a lot of different ways to solve that problem,” she said of the safety issues, noting that 50,000 people enter the front lobby of the California Avenue headquarters each month.
The Bakersfield Police Department has conducted a sweep of the building to identify safety issues, and the department is looking into stationing an officer in the lobby as well as installing metal detectors.
If the department completes these procedures, many of the issues brought up in the petition would be addressed.
However, the workload could be a more difficult problem to tackle.
According to a draft budget released by the county on Thursday, Human Services employs approximately 1,691 people, including 399 in Child Protective Services, making it one of the county’s largest departments.
In a letter to supervisors released Thursday, the County Administrative Office said caseloads for the Human Service's general assistance program had increased 32 percent in fiscal year 2018-19 and are expected to increase by 12 percent in FY 2019-20.
Although the county is designating $5.4 million in one-time funding to offset costs related to the increased workload as well as $1.6 million in a budget increase, “a long-term solution for this escalating trend will need to be identified,” the CAO’s office said in the letter.
As the county continues with the process of approving next fiscal year’s budget, Vasquez said the union is encouraging the department to take steps to address employee concerns.
The county is scheduled to consider the budget Tuesday, in a process that typically wraps up around the end of July.
“This crisis is impacting us all,” Vasquez said. “It seems like this is getting worse for us, and we are providing services for the most vulnerable members of the community.”