New Jersey Welfare Workers Sound the Alarm on Safety

Welfare workers in Ocean County, New Jersey, won their best contract in years by taking a stand for Covid safety.

“After months of working in fear, and with Covid back on the rise, we decided that enough was enough,” human services specialist and Local 1088 steward Jessica Coffin told fellow members of the Communications Workers, District 1 (CWA) New Jersey in a recent training.

Local 1088 represents several hundred Ocean County Board of Social Services workers, spread over a number of buildings throughout the county, which sits along the Jersey Shore. Members range from receptionists to social workers, and help clients access benefits including emergency housing, welfare, and food stamps.

Many employees had worked from home during the first months of the pandemic. But last June the Board resumed in-person operations, with the full staff working their normal schedules.

Workers became more and more fearful that their workplace was not safe. Every week they were receiving multiple notices from management about new Covid exposures; workers were spreading the virus to each other and their families.

The mobilization committee met and decided to organize a campaign to demand a split schedule to reduce staffing in the office, as well as the ability to work from home. The union was also in contract negotiations and wanted to correct a growing wage disparity where people were doing the same jobs for widely different salaries, depending on when they were hired.

This contract is the first in 18 years where Local 1088 didn’t lose anything.

Although members didn’t win the ability to work from home, the Board arranged for employees to be vaccinated during four different sessions—with paid time off to receive the vaccine during work hours.

Another highlight is salary increases (for those hired after step increases were taken away) of $1,800 in the first year of the contract, $1,600 the second year, and 2.5 percent the third year. For the lowest-paid employees, that adds up to a 14 percent increase.

“If there’s anything I learned from this, it’s be loud, be real loud!” Coffin said. “Let management know you won’t settle for subpar.”

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