Despite voting to approve wage and benefit concessions, Stefany Acciono was one of 37 non-permanent Department of Children and Families caseworkers who were laid off in July. She and some of her former colleagues gathered at the state Capitol Wednesday to ask the governor to reinstate them.
While the $1.6 billion concession package approved by state employee unions in August provides four years of layoff protection for the bargaining units that voted for it, that job security was not extended to employees who were not considered permanent.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy gave executive agency commissioners the option of re-hiring some of those workers, assuming they had money in their budgets to do so. But after consulting with department staff, DCF Commissioner Joette Katz made the decision not to re-hire the caseworkers who were laid off, said spokesman Gary Kleeblatt.
At the press conference, sponsored by AFSCME Council 4, social workers appealed to Malloy to reinstate their jobs.
Accino, who worked in the department’s Stamford office for 17 months, said she and everyone in her office voted in favor of the labor concessions and was surprised when her position wasn’t made permanent.
“We made significant concessions to protect the services we provided, so it saddens me to stand here today,” she said. “DCF has no shortage of cases, it doesn’t have a shortage of management either. Our agency just has a shortage of workers who are needed and valued by our community.”
Accino said when she left work on July 1 she was carrying a full caseload, as were most of the remaining social workers in her office. They inherited the caseloads of the workers who were laid off, she said.
But in a statement, Kleeblatt said caseloads are actually down.
“Because caseloads have fallen—below those required by the Juan F. Exit Plan and below those recommended by such national experts as the Child Welfare League of America—the layoffs of these employees during their working test period was a decision made in consultation with department staff and others focusing on ensuring that the needs of the children are met first and foremost,” he said.
Even if that’s the case, Accino said the decision had a negative impact on the already tumultuous lives of children in the system. She spoke about a 14-year-old girl whose case she had been working on for a year. When she told the girl over the phone that she would no longer be her social worker, she began crying, Accino said.
“It got me all teary-eyed because I was someone who she had built a relationship with and when everything else in her life was unstable, at least she had me to go to. She knew she had someone to turn to,” she said.
AFSCME Local 2663 President Paul Lavallee said that by upholding the layoffs, Katz made a regrettable decision. But Malloy could set things right, he said. He cited comments made by Malloy on the campaign trail as reasons why he should step in and order the workers re-hired.
“Candidate Malloy made a commitment to realign state bureaucracy. His focus of concern was the multiple layers of management that had emerged within several state agencies. Candidate Malloy stated that he has great respect for all the front line workers who directly provide services to the citizens of Connecticut,” he said.
Lavallee said he believed that was why Malloy allowed commissioners the option of rescinding layoffs.
Relations between the governor and the labor unions are still strained from the contentious negotiating process over the concessions package, he said. Malloy chose to let that process play out in the media and pitted public opinion against state employees, he said.
“That hurt and it hurt a lot of state employees,” he said. “We’re trying to mend the wounds. He’s still our boss, we need to work together. We’ve got a long haul ahead of us. We want to get through this economic crisis. We want to partner with him. But healing takes time.”
Putting the 37 laid off social workers back to work would be a good step in helping that healing along, Lavallee said.
Roy Occhiogrosso, Malloy’s senior communications adviser said the decision is up to the department and the governor will not be intervening. In a phone interview his budget director Ben Barnes said the same.
“I find it highly unlikely the governor would do that independent of Commissioner Katz,” he said. “It is certainly my intention to leave it up to Commissioner Katz.”
Barnes said the layoffs were a fiscal decision and the governor’s administration has a strong interest in the budget management of each agency. The Department of Children and Families could not just re-hire staff without decreasing its expenses, he said.
“For them to be brought back they’re going to have to take other steps to make cuts elsewhere,” he said.
Kleeblatt said that while the department would like to be able to re-hire some of the social workers in the future, there are currently no plans to do so.