Supervisor Steve Lavagnino | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors heard an intense earful from multiple employees of the county’s Department of Social Services about the high stress they experience because of long hours, unpredictable workload, burn-out, and high turnover. 

“People are tired. They want to go home and rest. They want to go home and be with their families. This is not possible,” one social worker lamented. Another was more assertive, demanding of the supervisors, “When was the last time you talked to a frontline worker? When was the last time you saw a baby in a hospital going through withdrawals? When was the last time you lost sleep because of a decision you just made in the field?” 

Supervisor Steve Lavagnino replied he speaks to frontline workers almost every day and, based on his experience going on calls with them, is in awe of the work they do. “I can’t believe the houses that you walk into,” he said. 

The Department of Social Services, it so happens, is the largest department in the county, with 760 full-time equivalent positions. These include eligibility workers and frontline workers for people on General Relief, Child Protective Services, and Adult Protective Services. To the extent there’s a safety net, this department is it. It’s where people experiencing the problems of poverty — addiction, mental health issues, criminal justice challenges — seek help. 

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“Social services — that’s the job we’re here to do,” Lavagnino added. 

Child Protective Services, the supervisors were told, is now experiencing a 19 percent vacancy rate, and that’s a problem afflicting pretty much all departments. 

Tuesday’s chorus of concerned employees showed up right before the supervisors were set to hear a 100-page consultant’s report on 25 ways the department can use new technology and existing data to deliver services more efficiently. Right now, for example, there’s a 139 percent variation among frontline workers in their caseloads. 

Much was made of the family pressures facing many of the social workers, particularly among employees of child-bearing ages, though many of the social workers who spoke dismissed pregnancy as a reason why workers were leaving. Even so, Supervisor Das Williams suggested that the county might need to think seriously about creating a childcare center on its Calle Real campus so that county workers can do their job knowing that their younger kids are cared for. 

All the supervisors expressed concern over the stresses and strains articulated but were encouraged that the departmental brass had embraced all 25 of the consultant’s recommendations.

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