Organizer’s notebook: Indianapolis social workers decide to go union
Social workers at the Step-Up agency in Indianapolis sport ASCME t-shirts. | Jason Jones / People's World

INDIANAPOLIS—Motivated by union victories at Amazon and Starbucks, my co-workers and I at Step-Up, a social service agency here, decided that it was time to demand representation and democracy in our workplace.

The 23 social workers and case managers at Step-Up provide care coordination, case management, and mental health counseling to clients living with HIV and AIDS as well as to people transitioning back to the community after incarceration. Our jobs involve everything from individual and group therapy as part of mental health treatment to coordinating medical appointments and assisting community members with obtaining affordable housing and job training.

As a licensed clinical social worker in re-entry services, my job requires that I provide individual and group therapy to clients with a wide range of mental health diagnoses. In addition to counseling the 30 clients on my caseload, I also perform all of the same case management duties that my colleagues do. Along with the direct services—that is, services that I perform directly to or on behalf of my clients—I also help out with community outreach to other service organizations and assist with grant writing. In addition to all those things, we all have to keep up with continuing education hours to maintain licensure.

On June 14, our organizing committee delivered our notice asking for voluntary recognition of our union to the management of the not-for-profit.

Ana Cooper, who works as a non-medical case manager and is a member of the organizing committee, believes that workers were inspired by organizing drives across the nation. “It is a new world we are in, and we are living through true revolutionary times in the workforce,” she said. Ana helps community members with insurance, housing assistance, employment skills, accessing food, coordinating appointments, and transportation. There is also a lot of time spent on documenting each thing she does in each client’s electronic medical record.

Ana’s job requires 37.5 hours of billing each week. This is a requirement of all non-medical case managers at the agency. This equals the number of hours worked as full-time employees at Step-Up each week. We all have increasingly high caseloads and hourly billing quotas.

Our agency has experienced increased turnover recently due to the low pay and poor benefits. Several care coordination and case management positions have been left vacant, which increased the workload of my colleagues. Despite the increase in responsibilities, there has not been a raise in compensation.

Health care costs rise, no worker input on plan

Early this year, management implemented insurance benefit changes that increased costs to employees.

Our additional costs are due to a change in the date the new policy took effect. Many of us who had met our deductible last year would have had medical costs covered until the end of the year, but a new policy selected by Step-Up’s president and CEO took effect two months earlier, in November. There was no input from staff.

The new deductible year did not start until January 1, so medical expenses we paid for two months did not count toward the deductible. The new health care plan is exceptionally costly for those of us with families. Higher deductibles and office visit co-pays that do not go toward the deductible, result in many of us spending a large portion of our paychecks to cover medications, doctor and hospital visits, and health coverage for children.

Maternity leave is another issue for new parents at our agency. After Abby Foltz, a non-medical case manager who has worked at Step-Up for four years, gave birth to her daughter in November last year, she didn’t get paid for a month. “I was told I could use my vacation and sick time to supplement what short-term disability would not pay, but then that turned out not to be true.” Abby waited a month without pay, and then, instead of a paycheck, only got the year-end bonus around Christmas and then her actual paycheck a week later.

Home surveillance sneaked into employee handbook

In January this year, we also discovered that management had inserted new rules about telecommuting into a new Employee Handbook. The new telecommuting rules raise serious privacy concerns.

The new requirement states: “The employee will be available at any time during the work schedule hours for visits from his or her supervisor and other Step-Up, Inc. employees.” This implies that workers approved to work from home can find a supervisor or another employee showing up at their door without any notice.

The new Handbook also made this stipulation to those of us with kids: “The employee will manage any dependent care or personal responsibilities in a way that permits him or her to successfully perform his or her work responsibilities. All primary care for any child or disabled or elderly adult in the home must be provided by a person other than the employee during the employee’s work hours.”

In this not-so-subtle fashion, Step-Up was telling us to pay for daycare and eldercare or we might get a visit from management with consequences to follow. Again, Step-Up does not provide any child care assistance or maternity leave.

My co-workers and I are feeling increased pressure to be in the office, even though it is possible to do tasks through telecommuting. The pressure to be in the office is hitting us at a time when gas prices have soared to over $ 5 per gallon, and without cost of living increases, we get no real raise in wages to offset the burden.

Organizing committee formed

As working conditions worsened, some of my co-workers thought that writing a letter to the Board of Step-Up would be sufficient to address these issues. But that plan backfired. A co-worker was cornered and intimidated by management when word of the plan to write the letter leaked. It was then that I pointed out how powerless we were without a union.

In a very careful and organized way, I began talking with my coworkers individually to get a sense of where they stood on the possibility of organizing. We all have a good working and personal relationship with each other; we are like family.

Given that Step-Up is such a small agency, we don’t just spend time together at work, but also socialize and hang out after hours. So after getting an overwhelmingly positive response to the idea of organizing, I solidified the most passionate folks into an organizing committee comprising about eight of us. We met at a bar after work one day in March.

Step-Up workers meet with management. | Jason Jones / People’s World

Everyone showed up, excited, energized, and hopeful about making Step-Up a better place to work and, in doing so, improving the quality of the services we provide to community members. As passionate advocates for those we serve, we know that we also have to take care of ourselves. During our first meeting, we thought about our message to management and also divided up responsibilities among ourselves to assess our coworkers.

After this meeting, I reached out to a union brother at AFSCME Council 962, Michael Torres. In 2006, the Central Indiana District Communist Party club that I’m a part of was instrumental in organizing the Indianapolis library workers with AFSCME. I was familiar with this union, having been financial secretary of AFSCME Local 3730 when I worked for the state. Michael instantly put me in contact with Tina Dillard at our local AFSCME Council.

As things kept moving into April and we got positive responses from our colleagues, we held our first meeting with Tina and the organizing committee at AFSCME, and we got cards. During breaks, lunches, and after hours, the committee gathered the signatures of nearly every employee.

Step-Up is a small agency, but we are proud of what we have accomplished so far. “This movement will not only benefit me and my co-workers but also those after us,” said organizing committee member Ana Cooper, adding that the campaign is also ”for the people we serve.”

Management has until June 21 to respond to the union’s notice.


Jason Jones
Jason Jones

Jason Jones is a social worker writing about Indiana. One of his favorite quotes is “I'm a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will." -Antonio Gramsci. Jones is a fan of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Beisbol Cubano.