St. Louis County Workers Call on County Board to Stop Outsourcing Plan

As Minnesotans age, the need for high-quality elder care continues to rise. But when St. Louis County Public Health & Human Services (PHHS) moved to outsource this critical care, the social workers who care for some of St. Louis County’s most vulnerable residents fought back.

St. Louis County PHHS decided to outsource case management of elderly waivers, citing staff shortages. PHHS suggested that contracting out this specific segment of work will allow them to redeploy the social workers to other areas where the county is also short staffed.

Outsourcing will put a strain on social workers and make the process more difficult and cumbersome for the elderly population, social workers say. “We have an enormous county. In an average day on the Iron Range, I can easily travel 100-150 miles,” said social worker Sasha Lehto. “We not only know our service area well, but we know what resources we have and what we don’t in certain areas of our county. How will a contracted agency located near Duluth service the elderly in areas of Ely, Hoyt Lakes or Kabetogama effectively?” 

In the more rural areas of St. Louis County, Local 66 members are often the only people advocating for their patients. They help fill out paperwork, navigate complicated systems, and protect patients’ rights. “I’ve worked with our regional Ombudsman to protect the rights of the elderly and to ensure that they are getting the services they need,” says Lehto.  “We are a frequent presence in long-term facilities, ensuring our clients get the level of care they need, and we work closely with the providers to do this.”  

After months of objecting to the plan, AFSCME Local 66 members made an appearance at the February 5 St. Louis County Board meeting. Their objective: to get the County Board to stop PHHS from moving forward with their outsourcing plan.

Social worker Karen Donald says contracting out the work she and her coworkers do would have a harmful impact on the elderly clients receiving services. “I feel like they’re just so vulnerable,” she laments.

As employees of the county, Donald says, AFSCME care workers have established relationships with their elderly clients and have the resources of the entire agency available to them, so they can provide the highest quality of care coordination. “Trusting a government agency is kind of different for the elderly. When you say ‘we’re from the county,’ you have that official stamp. It means something to them,” she says, “Particularly because they are trusting us with very intimate details of their lives.”

Outsourcing this work isn’t just harmful; it’s also unnecessary. While it’s true that caseloads are increasing, members of AFSMCE Local 66 say that this work can be kept in-house by simply adding a few more positions specifically for elderly care. This would solve the staffing problem while protecting the clients and communities who rely on these crucial services – without adding cost to the county’s budget.

At the St. Louis County Board meeting, Local 66 workers had a simple request for the board: put an end to this plan. The County Board has yet to respond to their request, and their silence is disappointing to Local 66 members. “The County Board took an oath to do what’s best for their constituents,” Lehto says. “They have boasted with pride that we provide great customer service. So when the social workers are telling them that this is not a good idea and raise huge concerns, why are they going ahead with this and refusing to put it to a vote?”

No matter what the County Board decides, the social workers of Local 66 are glad they stood up for their clients. “I’m an advocate for the elderly as a social worker. Who would I be as an advocate if I’m not fighting to keep this?” Lehto says. “When the board says, ‘well, we don’t have enough chips on the table to invest in this’, my questions are: When did our elderly stop being a priority investment? Who are we as a county if we are not helping our elders?  We will all be there someday.”