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Home > Consultation and Training > Trieschman Center for Consultation & Training > Workforce Development Initiative


2001 Finding Better Ways Conference Presentation Recap

Responding to the Workforce Crisis: How Unions Promote Workforce Stability

Fran Bernstein
Washington, DC

Larry Spivack
AFSCME Council 31
Chicago, IL

When addressing the "workforce crisis" or other challenging issues facing child welfare programs; administrators, advocates and others often either ignore the role of unions or cite them as obstacles to positive change. This paper highlights how union representation promotes policies and practices that empower staff and strengthen child welfare agencies.

Background and Historical Information

The bumper sticker, "Unions: The Folks Who Brought You The Weekend" not only describes what unions did for working people decades ago but also reminds us that unions continue to improve wages and working conditions for employees across occupations and industries. In addition to playing a decisive role in establishing the 40-hour workweek and the minimum wage, unions serve as a voice for workers in all areas of their work lives through the collective bargaining process. Several studies have shown that workers who have control in their work environments are less likely to feel high levels of stress on the job. Although only 13.5% of the U.S. workforce are members of unions, nearly four in 10 government workers are union members. In 2000, the median monthly wage for union members was $696; the median wage for nonunion workers was $542 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2000).

How Do Child Welfare Workers Benefit From Unionization?

Wages: While no national study exists comparing the salaries of union vs. nonunion child welfare workers, we reviewed available information to determine the "union dividend." According to data from a preliminary study, "The Child Welfare Workforce Challenge" by the American Public Human Services Association, Child Welfare League of America, and Alliance for Children and Families (released in March, 2001), the average annual salary for a CPS investigator working for a state agency is $33,436; the average for a CPS investigator working for a county agency is $38,391; and the average for private agency employees is $28,646. In comparison, the average annual salary for AFSCME members working as CPS investigators for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) is $43,430.

Turnover Rates: Using the same data sources as above, the average turnover rate is 19.9% for CPS investigators in state agencies; 21.3% in county agencies; and over 40% in private agencies. In Illinois, the turnover rate for AFSCME CPS investigators is 7.9%.

Job Protection and Career Growth: AFSCME and other unions negotiate a range of protections for their members in collective bargaining agreements. These often include such issues as seniority rights, internal promotional opportunities, periodic salary increases, notice before work is contracted out, and required training opportunities.

Caseload and Workload Control: If you ask 100 child welfare workers about the most difficult part of their jobs, 99 will tell you it's not being able to do all the work that needs to be done for all their clients. AFSCME has worked at the local, state and federal levels to relieve crushing workloads. For example, in Delaware and Florida, we were the driving force behind state legislation that ties maximum child welfare caseload sizes to those recommended by the Child Welfare League of America, plus two cases. In Indiana, the AFSCME council is working with its state agency to study the actual workloads of the child welfare caseworkers (e.g., determining how much work each case entails).

Health and Safety: Unions have always played a pivotal role in protecting workers from unhealthy or unsafe work environments. One example of AFSCME's commitment to this issue is a labor-management initiative in the Indiana Division of Families and Children (DFC) to control violence, limit the spread of infectious diseases, and identify and solve ergonomics problems. DFC now has polices in all three areas. The violence prevention project utilized a train-the-trainer model that will reach every DFC employee, and every building is being inspected by a union-management team for possible safety violations.

Employee Involvement Models: AFSCME's Illinois council recognized that not all labor-management issues are best addressed through the possibly adversarial collective bargaining process. The council approached the DCFS to replicate an Employee Involvement (EI) model that was already being used in the mental health area. Both management and employee representatives were trained in the philosophy of Employee Involvement. An equal number from each group sit on a steering committee and on work teams organized around specific issues. The teams meet at least two times per month. The issues addressed tend to be very specific: after-hours protocol; telephone protocol; access to photocopiers; better staff casework communication; flexible work schedules, etc. The EI approach has both improved service delivery and empowered workers.

Communication: AFSCME has also facilitated communication among our members, leadership and staff who work in child welfare. Through meetings and periodic newsletters, we are able to discuss issues of common concern and brainstorm solutions.

Supporting Public Administration of Child Welfare: While AFSCME recognizes and supports the important contribution of nonprofit agencies in providing child welfare services, we strongly believe that the public sector must continue to provide core services. Public child welfare workers' job security is threatened when privatization is threatened or actually implemented. When child welfare work is contracted out, AFSCME sees its role as protecting our members' jobs and ensuring accountability to the children and families being served and to all taxpayers.


There is general agreement that a workforce crisis exists in child welfare. Experts in the field have suggested a number of possible remedies. AFSCME strongly urges all those who are tackling these problems to view unions as important allies in this undertaking.


AFSCME Public Policy Department. (1998). Double jeopardy: Caseworkers at risk helping at-risk kids. A report on the working conditions facing child welfare workers. Washington, DC: Author.

AFSCME Public Policy Department. (1998). AFSCME Child Welfare Watch Newsletter. Washington, DC: Author.

AFSCME Research Department. (2000). Safety net for sale. Washington, DC: Author.

National Association of Child Advocates. (2000). Privatization of human services: Is it the best choice for children? (Four fact sheets.) Washington, DC: Author.

Contact Information

Fran Bernstein, J.D.
Public Policy Department
1625 L Street, NW
Washington, DC 20036
Phone: 202.429.1164
Fax: 202.429.1084

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