October 04, 2017
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Uncommon Contract Holds Promise for California Group Home’s Too Familiar Ills

Better wages and added money for schooling could stabilize staff and improve care at large San Francisco home for vulnerable children.

Last year, the Edgewood Center for Children and Families in San Francisco became the scene of a rare struggle: a bid to unionize workers who provide care and oversight to some of California’s most troubled children. On Monday, that struggle produced the former orphanage’s first union contract, a deal that workers said could be a significant step in ending longstanding issues of rampant turnover and low morale.

The contract, negotiated by a local branch of the Teamsters, raises starting wages from $13 to $18 an hour for frontline workers, the often young, modestly trained staffers who deal daily with children suffering from a range of physical and psychological challenges. The deal also puts in a place a merit-based promotion system, paid time off for continuing education, and a $500 tuition reimbursement for any job-related study.

Edgewood, which can care for 36 children at any time, belongs to a category of group homes known as Level 14 — reserved for children with severe emotional disturbances, many of whom have exhausted the resources of lower level group homes, foster homes or public school districts.

“Through forming a union, the workers who care for the most vulnerable members of our community now have a real voice on the job, incentive to create careers at Edgewood, and have the ability advocate for their clients without fear,” union representative Peter Finn in a statement emailed to ProPublica. “The Edgewood story is exemplary of what can happen when workers are willing to stand together and persist against vigorous odds.”

Ken Auletta, Edgewood’s chief human resources officer, who led the nonprofit organization’s end of the negotiations, said management was equally pleased by the contract.

“I think it’s one of those things where both sides can walk out with an agreement we feel good about,” Auletta said.

ProPublica reported on the early efforts by Edgewood workers to unionize as part of its series of stories on systems of care for troubled youth in July 2015.

At the time, counselors at Edgewood had just voted to unionize and were beginning to work toward contract negotiations. As in many other group homes, the workers had complained for years that the pay at Edgewood had been too low to attract and retain quality staff. Staff turnover contributed, they said, to a volatile work environment, where inexperienced workers were asked to supervise children who are often deeply disturbed and occasionally violent. Several current and former Edgewood workers told ProPublica they had been hurt on the job by children and hadn’t received adequate time off or compensation afterward.

In April 2016, ProPublica told the story of another facility in Davis, California, where inexperienced and underpaid workers had been so overwhelmed the group home had completely unraveled. The home, FamiliesFirst, was one of the state’s largest Level 14 homes before it spiraled out of control. Over a period of months, children hitchhiked to different parts of the state; violent episodes spiked; children were sexually assaulted; and police were called routinely. Eventually, the county was forced to shut down the home.

Edgewood workers were inspired to unionize due in part to the tumult that unfolded in Davis. The home’s management was not initially warm to the idea. Throughout 2014 and 2015, each side waged a campaign against the other. Pro-union workers, for instance, alleged that the home’s management held private meetings with some staff and offered them modest benefits to dissuade them from formally organizing.

But after two elections, the Teamsters prevailed. In May 2015, the Edgewood staff voted to unionize by a margin of 14 workers: 56 in favor and 42 against. By law, the Teamsters only needed a third of the home’s 160 workers.

ProPublica wrote about the development in July 2015. In September of that year, Matt Madaus, then-Edgewood president and CEO, left the agency. The nonprofit’s board brought in Nancy Rubin, a former Edgewood executive whom union organizers described as more amenable to their concerns.

“The workers’ perseverance in their goal to have a union at Edgewood was rewarded with new leadership at the agency who actually listened to and acted upon employee concerns,” said Tim Jenkins, who served as lead negotiator for the Teamsters.

Auletta, the chief human resources officer, told ProPublica that the Teamsters had overstated Edgewood’s initial opposition.

“Yes, we had attorneys on our side that had a reputation for union avoidance and they had attorneys on their side,” he said. “But they said a lot of things about us that were lies. That’s how these campaigns work. They can promise anything. We can’t.”

But once the staff made its choice to unionize, Auletta said, “skepticism started to quickly dissipate.”

“It became clear we both wanted the same thing,” he said. “We were both looking to maintain a safe environment for staff and kids and to do that we had to increase wages.”

Auletta said that goal could only be accomplished by cutting overhead and seeking additional support from the city of San Francisco. Both the union and Edgewood management lobbied the local board of supervisors and successfully obtained a $400,000 budget increase from the city.

“The reason why we started this is because we were trying to fight turnover,” said Michael Shih, a former Edgewood worker who helped start the union campaign. “We knew management had its hiring woes. Not having a pool of candidates to choose from was frustrating for everybody. But now we’ll offer some of the best pay of anyone in our field in the Bay Area. And it only makes sense that with other group homes closing we’ll attract talented individuals from other places.”

- Originally appeared at ProPublica.Org