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SF Social Welfare Workers Protest Proposition F, Saying It Will Exacerbate Agency's Staffing Crisis

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A group of people in purple shirts hold signs while standing in front of a building. One woman speaks into a microphone.
San Francisco Human Services Agency workers, who are members of SEIU Local 1021, rally outside their office in downtown San Francisco on March 20, 2024, to protest a voter-approved measure that may task their short-staffed workforce with additional responsibilities. (Nik Altenberg/KQED)

San Francisco Human Services Agency workers rallied outside their downtown office on Wednesday to protest the additional workload they may have to take on because of a new local measure that mandates drug screening for some residents who receive cash assistance.

“There’s not enough staff to begin with. We know the staff that we have now, they barely are able to serve the community that we normally serve,” said Alejandra Calderon, a child protective specialist at the agency, who was among the roughly 100 workers at the demonstration. “And now we’re adding this other layer when we’re not ready at all.”

Voters on March 5 decisively approved Proposition F, a measure introduced by Mayor London Breed that tasks the Human Services Agency with screening city welfare recipients who are suspected of using illegal substances.

Family caseworkers are already “seeing up to between 20 to 24 cases, which is just very dangerous,” Calderon said. “A lot of things are getting lost in the shuffle. And so it’s jeopardizing the quality of services that we’re able to provide to the families.”

Theresa Rutherford, president of SEIU Local 1021, the union representing workers at the agency, said the city needs to provide the resources necessary to implement the new rules, not throw it on the backs of its already overworked staff.

“The city has a responsibility to make sure that when it creates a rule, it creates a law, it creates legislation — that it makes sure that the people are in place to implement that legislation,” she said. “We want this to be fixed. If you want a real law that is going to make change, make sure that you put the resources behind it, make sure that the people are in place.”

The Human Services Agency is already sorely understaffed, with more than 100 vacancies as of January, according to Nato Green, a bargaining coordinator for the union.

However, Teresa Young, a spokesperson for the Human Services Agency, said Wednesday that workers at the agency would not shoulder the burden.

A view of a crowd of people, taken from behind, wearing purple shirts and holding 'SEIU'; signs.
San Francisco Human Services Agency workers rallying in front of their office on Wednesday. (Nik Altenberg/KQED)

Rather, the agency plans to “contract out the drug screening assessments to licensed clinicians and mental health workers,” Young said in an email. She added that the city is “working to be ready to implement this new program” by Jan. 1, 2025, when the new law takes effect.

SEIU 1021, though, has also raised concerns about the city hiring out non-unionized contract labor and argues that even with the extra help, its own workers would still be responsible for having to “suspect” when a welfare recipient is using drugs and refer them for a screening.

The union filed an unfair practice charge on March 7, stating that it was not consulted on the proposition and its potential implications for union-represented workers.

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The rally comes on the heels of a “strike school” held last week by SEIU 1021 and other local unions, meant to prepare workers for the possibility of a walkout amid tense ongoing contract negotiations with the city ahead of a June deadline.

Workers at Wednesday’s protest were encouraged by union organizers to sign a “strike pledge” affirming they would show up to a picket line and authorize a strike if their bargaining team were to call for one.

The agency has many vacancies “that really need to be filled, which leaves the rest of us — the remaining staff — working two to three different jobs,” Calderon said. “That’s just, you know, not sustainable in the long term.”

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