Unionized workers at the state Department of Children, Youth and Families have launched a no-confidence vote against their boss, DCYF Secretary Ross Hunter, urging Gov. Jay Inslee to fire and replace him.
The long-simmering revolt stems from what workers contend is Hunter’s “ignorance about the work we do and indifference to the issues we raise, all of which have put children and staff at risk,” according to a summary of their grievances posted on the state employee union website.
Hunter, a former Microsoft manager and former state representative from Medina, has led DCYF since the cabinet-level department was created in 2017 to centralize the state’s child-focused programs, including early education, foster care and Child Protective Services.
In interviews, union members who work at DCYF emphasized they started the no-confidence petition only after years of frustration and unsuccessful efforts to get Hunter to address their concerns over caseloads, turnover and unsafe working conditions.
“We have incredibly low staff morale because staff feel like their leadership doesn’t understand what they do,” said Jeanette Obelcz, who chairs the DCYF policy committee for the Washington Federation of State Employees and works as a CPS supervisor at DCYF.
Obelcz said caseworkers at the agency are laboring under heavy caseloads that have gotten “significantly worse” in recent years, reaching double or more the recommended levels.
Cori Butterfield, a union member who works as a social worker at DCYF, said staff are getting burned out and leaving at an alarming rate. “How can we adequately serve our children and families? At this point we are just putting fires out. We are spinning plates, and more plates are getting added and added and something is going to fall,” she said.
“There are so many people in my agency that are phenomenal. It’s really sad when they have had enough and they’ve left,” Butterfield added.
DCYF has one of the highest staff turnover rates among state agencies, with 18% of employees leaving in the 2022 fiscal year, up from 11.5% the previous year, according to the state Office of Financial Management.
Hunter, through a spokesperson, declined an interview request about the no-confidence vote and discontent among department employees.
“We acknowledge the challenge and demands of the work in child welfare and take concerns of staff seriously. Secretary Hunter has been communicating with both the union and individual employees. He will continue to engage employees on the challenges identified,” DCYF spokesperson Jason Wettstein said in an email.
Handling fraught situations including accusations of child abuse and neglect and the placement of foster kids, DCYF has been pummeled by lawsuits, critical news coverage and far-reaching court decisions in recent years.
In May, seven teenagers detained at the department’s Echo Glen Children’s Center in Snoqualmie escaped after allegedly assaulting a staff member and stealing a car.
WFSE criticized DCYF over the incident, saying mismanagement and dangerous understaffing at the youth detention facility led to the breakout. DCYF acknowledged at the time the facility was short about 28 positions.
Five teens similarly escaped after attacking staff members and stealing a state-owned vehicle in January 2022. All the escaped youths in both cases were eventually caught.
The petition is seeking two-thirds of DCYF’s 2,800 union-represented employees to endorse the no-confidence vote, at which point it would be officially delivered to Inslee. The effort, which began in late June, is about halfway to that goal, according to Obelcz.
Inslee spokesperson Mike Faulk said in an email the governor’s office has not been presented with the no-confidence petition, “but in the event we do we will consider it like any other.”
DCYF “does challenging work and Secretary Hunter’s leadership has been integral to their efforts to serve Washingtonians,” Faulk added.
In a detailed timeline, the union has cited incidents dating back to 2018, including staff assaulted by youths, a lack of adequate response to concerns about pay and working conditions, and comments by Hunter viewed as unsupportive or puzzling.
In a September 2022 meeting of the DCYF Oversight Board, for example, Hunter was asked what he was doing to make staff feel supported.
“Probably not enough,” he said, blaming the COVID-19 pandemic for restricting his ability to visit field offices in recent years and saying he looked forward to doing that more now that the pandemic had somewhat faded.
“I am not the world’s touchiest-feeliest human being,” he added.
The no-confidence vote by the DCYF workers was unanimously endorsed on June 23 by the WFSE executive board, which represents 47,000 members across the state. It was also backed by the Washington State Labor Council at its annual convention earlier this month.
Mike Yestramski, president of WFSE, said the state employee union has followed a strict process for such no-confidence votes to ensure they don’t take the step lightly.
He blasted Hunter for refusing to engage adequately in union-management meetings that could have defused the situation, and for blaming DCYF staff and other factors for problems at the agency.
“It is the opposite of, ‘The buck stops here.’ It is, ‘The buck stops with everybody else,'” he said.
“We have other things we’d rather spend our time on. But when you have tried all your other alternatives, you have got to go with what you’ve got,” Yestramski said. “It’s an extreme response to an extreme situation.”