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Joaquin Sapien: In Rare Step, Workers at California Group Home Unionize

Frontline employees at a San Francisco home for some of California’s most troubled children bid for better pay and a greater role in treatment.


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Photo by Flickr user Brooke Anderson.

By Joaquin Sapien
By arrangement with ProPublica

Workers at a former orphanage in San Francisco that now functions as a large group home for troubled children have unionized—a rare step by frontline employees who work at facilities that can be both demanding and dangerous.

In June 2014, a large group of workers at Edgewood, a complex in the city’s Sunset district that houses a maximum of forty-eight children, first began to work with a local of the national Teamsters union. The workers wanted higher wages, better benefits and a greater say in the treatment of the children under their care, said Michael Shih, a residential counselor who worked on the Edgewood campus for five years and played a leading role in organizing the workers.

Edgewood is one of roughly fifty homes, known as Level 14’s, that are supposed to offer intensive psychiatric care and other assistance to the state’s most emotionally damaged children. The children usually arrive at the facilities after stays in foster homes, the juvenile justice system or overwhelmed local school districts.

“Some people walk off the job as soon as they step on the floor. They quit after their first shift.”

The state is trying to move away from large group homes as a way to treat these troubled youth. For years, many of them have had issues with violence and sexual abuse. But today, some 750 children still live in Level 14 group homes throughout the state. The counselors and medical technicians left to provide the bulk of daily supervision often receive little training and low wages.

“Our employer knows it can get people straight out of college or people just looking for work before they go to grad school,” said Shih. “That’s their bread and butter. They know most people can only work here one or two years before they just can’t do it anymore. Some people walk off the job as soon as they step on the floor. They quit after their first shift.”

In April, ProPublica detailed the demise of a large group home in Davis, California, run by the nonprofit EMQ FamiliesFirst. Staff at the home lost control of children in their care. Children began running away from the home in large groups and became involved in violent attacks and sexual assaults. The chaos went on for months before the state and the Davis Police Department moved to limit the damage. The home was eventually shut by the county. Former workers at FamiliesFirst said cuts in staff and limited training had left them ill-equipped to responsibly care for the ever more troubled children entrusted to them.

Tim Jenkins, the Teamsters union representative dispatched to organize Edgewood, said of the workers at Edgewood: “They didn’t want to become FamiliesFirst. They thought they could avoid that if they had a collective voice.”

Documents obtained through public records requests suggest that Edgewood is no more or less troubled than the average Level 14 facility. From 2010 through 2014, the California Department of Social Services investigated approximately fifteen complaints of abuse at Edgewood, substantiating about half of them. The complaints, which are usually filed by staff, residents or parents, often alleged the improper use of restraints—the physical holds used by staff to prevent children from harming themselves or others.

However, some current and former Edgewood staffers said physical assaults on staff by residents are routine. They say counselors often miss work in order to recover from injuries.

“In the past year, I have had to take over two months off of work due to assaults on the floor,” said Cory Henning, residential counselor in a statement provided by the Teamsters. “Instead of receiving support from the management while injured, I was asked to return to the floor… essentially risking my safety due to low-staffing.”

Last October, the roughly 160 workers at the facility held their first official vote to join the Teamsters. Some 114 voted: sixty-five against and forty-nine for.

In a statement, Matt Madaus, the president and chief executive officer of Edgewood, defended Edgewood’s record on staff injuries and overall performance, pointing to what he said were high marks from a national accreditation body and strong relationships with state regulators.

“It’s important to recognize that locked treatment facilities no longer exist in California,” said Madaus. “This results in working directly with kids with aggressive behaviors, and at times, incidents may occur due to a very small number of clients. We do not have a higher injury rate than the average [Level 14 group home]. With that said, this is an area we are always focused on improving upon as the safety of our staff and clients are our top priority.”

Last October, the roughly 160 workers at the facility held their first official vote to join the Teamsters. Some 114 voted: sixty-five against and forty-nine for.

Afterward, the Teamsters filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board, arguing that management unfairly influenced the vote. Shih and other workers said Edgewood management had held private meetings to dissuade workers from unionizing. Shih said management suddenly cut off his ability to send all-campus emails after he started using his internal company email to arrange union meetings. Another employee said she was placed on administrative leave as punishment for her involvement.

Edgewood’s management also gave workers some benefits as they were trying to organize, including a modest wage increase, reimbursement for some of their meals, and a more favorable health insurance deductible. Some workers perceived these actions as a way to deter them from unionizing.

Madaus, Edgewood’s president, told ProPublica that the allegations weren’t true. He said no one was punished for union activity and workers were allowed to use the company email to organize as much as they liked. The wage increases and other improvements were purely coincidental, he said.

“We had been planning the wage increases anyway and with the health benefits it was a damned if we do, damned if we don’t scenario. If we didn’t do it, there would be complaints; if we did there would be the appearance of influencing the election. We decided to bite the bullet and work through any false impressions.”

Madaus said that the lowest pay rate for any new counselor is $13 an hour, competitive with other similar facilities in the state.

Edgewood is a nonprofit organization with offices in four locations throughout the Bay Area: two in San Francisco, one in San Carlos and one in San Bruno. It says it serves more than 5,000 children and caregivers a year through a variety of social programs, including mental health counseling and sports and recreation. The Sunset district location is home to Edgewood’s only Level 14 facility and a psychiatric hospital diversion program.

In the end, rather than proceed to a hearing before the labor relations board, the workers and Edgewood’s management agreed to hold a second vote.

Legislation aimed at reducing California’s reliance on group homes and improving conditions in the state’s remaining facilities is pending. The reforms include improved training for workers.

In May 2015, the Teamsters prevailed: fifty-six workers voted “yes” and forty-two voted “no.” By law, the Teamsters needed just a third of the facility’s roughly 160 workers to vote for the union in order to establish it.

The newly organized workers are now preparing to enter contract negotiations with Edgewood management later this summer.

Legislation aimed at reducing California’s reliance on group homes and improving conditions in the state’s remaining facilities is pending. The reforms include requiring newly hired frontline workers to have a bachelor’s degree or meet one of a variety of alternative requirements such as the possession of a child development teaching permit. It also calls for improved training for those workers.

Next week, the proposed legislation will come before the state Senate Human Services Committee. Advocates are hopeful the governor will sign the bill by September.

Joaquin Sapien has covered criminal justice, military healthcare, and environmental issues for ProPublica since 2008.

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