Commentary: Lara’s Legacy

Glancing through my morning paper the other day, an entry in the “police log” caught my eye, and not in a good way. It read “A woman threatened to ‘go all Jody Herring’ on a Department for Children and Families caseworker.” It was a harsh reminder of how important VSEA’s current campaign to enhance on-the-job safety for DCF workers is. But this group of workers is not alone.

VSEA members working in the Employment Services Division, Office of Child Support, Probation and Parole, Corrections and other agencies and departments throughout state government have also told their union that they would like improved on-the-job safety. VSEA members recognize that our request for increased worker safety protections will cost money, but another Lara Sobel tragedy is something no one wants, and, judging by the newspaper entry I told you about (and other scary incidents workers have been told me about), time is particularly of the essence here.

To promote DCF workers’ campaign for improved safety, VSEA social workers and caseworkers have been testifying throughout the summer to a special joint legislative committee about the need for worker safety enhancements. Recently, frontline DCF social worker Trissie Casanova went before the committee to discuss employees’ three top recommendations to make their day-to-day working environment safer. They included reducing a DCF worker’s caseload to 12 (best-practice average) from the 17 to 18 they have now, limiting an investigator to 100 investigations per year and capping supervisors to no more than allowing a supervisor to manage no more than six social workers.

Casanova also said workers would like to ensure that every office housing DCF Family Services Division staff has trained, armed law enforcement or security personnel (just three of the Division’s 12 offices statewide currently have this protection) and ensure the Vermont State Police are adequately staffed, so troopers can be available if needed to support a social worker. Given the reality of what some DCF workers are confronting in the course of their daily duties, these are modest and thoughtful requests, and VSEA will be lobbying lawmakers hard to grant them in the upcoming session.

Another way to enhance frontline employee safety is to hire more workers to keep up with an acknowledged increase in demand for DCF, ESD and other social and economic services. How many workers? VSEA DCF members will be lobbying the State and lawmakers to add 40 to 60 new social worker positions, which they say is the number needed to bring caseloads down to a manageable level. In addition, a report recently delivered to lawmakers found that Corrections workers’ safety would be vastly improved by hiring an additional 50 to 80 workers.

Recently, a group of lawmakers got a look at what Corrections workers are up against daily, and, according to news reports, I have to believe they now better understand why the report and VSEA say the DOC needs more workers. And a report delivered to lawmakers in January 2015 recommended a host of security measures the Judiciary needs to implement in courthouses across Vermont to improve worker and public safety.

VSEA recognizes that none of these safety and security improvements will be cheap, but as Trissie Casanova responded when asked by a lawmaker about cost, “You can’t put a price on a social worker’s life, or a child’s life.”

Other worker safety recommendations VSEA members will be making in the upcoming legislative session include the creation of a special police force, charged with protecting AHS employees and worksites, the installation of metal detectors at major state office building entry points, making it a felony to threaten, abuse or engage in abusive or violent conduct towards a state employee, and ongoing safety training for all state employees. Again, these will all require a monetary investment by the State and lawmakers, but the consequences of not implementing all or some of VSEA members’ ideas are just too great.

The Lara Sobel tragedy may have been a wake-up call for some Vermonters, but the need for improved worker safety is something VSEA members have been working with their union to address for years now, especially since the recession hit back in 2008. As we know all too well, the State and lawmakers have repeatedly chosen to address Vermont’s chronic budget deficits by making cuts to essential public services and positions. Fewer frontline workers means more demand on those employees who are still working, and that, we have all too painfully learned, can sometimes lead to tragedy.

The time is now for our elected officials to acknowledge that a need does exist to enhance state employee on-the-job safety, which is why VSEA members are calling on them to generate the new revenue needed to implement some, if not all, of the measures we are proposing. Whether it’s charging tourists $5 or $6 more a night for lodging or increasing taxes on those who can most afford to pay, the return will be robust public services, a safer worker environment for the thousands of Vermonters providing these quality, essential services, and it will be safer for Vermonters visiting state office buildings to utilize services. This is an investment that all Vermonters can get behind.

Dave Bellini is president of the Vermont State Employees’ Association.

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