Amy Allison worked as a Child Protective Services caseworker for seven years before deciding she couldn't do it any more. She lasted longer than most.
When she asked to use vacation time to ease the stress, she was repeatedly denied. There were not enough co-workers to investigate the unending stream of child abuse and neglect cases pouring in.
"I left mainly for my health," said Allison, 45.
Up to one-third of front-line CPS caseworkers leave their jobs each year because of stress or burnout, or they couldn't meet the job requirements. Others found easier jobs, often for more pay.
The caseworkers, who feel undervalued, say their low salaries and high turnover make it difficult for the county to hire and retain enough staff to protect children.
Cases are constantly reshuffled among those who remain, many of whom are inexperienced. More than half of the current 118 CPS caseworkers have been on the job for under three years. About one in four have less than a year's experience, according to Social Services data.
A recent survey of CPS employees, administered by the workers themselves, asked how they feel when they get ready for work. About half picked the same word: dread.
"The thought of coming to work keeps me up at night," wrote one CPS employee. "Even on the weekend, I get anxiety over the work I haven't finished and the work that's yet to come. This job literally gives me diarrhea."
"People are often crying in the bathroom and feel they have no support," another wrote.
Other employees said they love the nature of their work. They just need help.
Social Services administrators acknowledge attracting and keeping workers is a problem. Jobs remain unfilled.
"We don't have enough people taking the exam," said Deputy Commissioner Mary Ellen Brockmyre, "and people aren't accepting the job if they do get it."
Of 65 people who could have been hired after the most recent civil service exam, only 20 took the job.
A new wage proposal before the County Legislature would significantly increase pay for newer caseworkers, and administrators say they are working to improve communication, training and safety.
"We want to support our staff so that they can do their work well, which is protecting and serving the vulnerable children and families of Erie County," Social Services Commissioner Marie Cannon said. "We do see this as a work in progress."
County employees started showing up at County Legislature meetings in August wearing red clothing. That month marked the start of an aggressive campaign by Child Protective Services workers for more respect and more pay. They distributed white binders filled with pay research and job expectations. They testified.
Then they came to Health and Human Services Committee meetings, and they met with individual legislators over the next seven months.
Civil Service Employees Association Local 815, which represents all white-collar employees, settled a contract with the county in January but saw no way to advocate a larger raise for CPS workers over everyone else. Meanwhile, County Executive Mark Poloncarz has resisted requests to meet with CPS employees.
"I just can't do that under the state law," Poloncarz said. "I can't negotiate with every group of individuals who feel like they're not being adequately represented by the union."
Legislature Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo, who has repeatedly met with the CPS employees, said nothing prevents the county executive from listening.
"Nobody in my six-plus years in the Legislature has ever brought forth a more well-reasoned, evidence-based and researched proposal, and they're getting the cold shoulder by the administration," he said.
Starting salaries for front-line CPS employees are lower in Erie County than in other counties and less than what human services agencies pay.
The new contract raised the entry-level salary for a trainee with no experience from $32,616 to $35,921.
"One of our issues is, the pay is so low, we can't get people through the door," Cannon said.
CPS workers said their pay should reflect their role as first responders handling crisis situations.
Allison recalled handling a case in which an infant fell out of a stroller and went crashing down a flight of Metro Rail subway stairs. The parents, who already had a history with CPS, put the baby back in the stroller, got on the Metro Rail and refused to take the infant to the hospital, despite pleas from security.
Allison found the child wailing in a back room of a home and took the baby to Women and Children's Hospital. The infant had suffered multiple skull fractures. She remembered sitting in the hospital with the infant at 1:30 in the morning.
That kind of responsibility deserves greater compensation, CPS employees say.
Poloncarz said there are limits to what he can do and what taxpayers can afford.
"You could pay someone so much money, and someone still might not like the job," he said. "And this is a tough job, I'm not going to deny it."
The plan offered by the county administration raises the entry-level salary for new and inexperienced caseworkers across several Social Services divisions beyond the raises they got in the last contract -- to $38,378. In addition to the extra pay, the proposal would broaden job titles to create more flexibility for staff to work across divisions. But senior investigators and supervisors who are above the lowest levels of caseworkers would not get any extra pay.
"We've come up with a proposal we believe is fair," Poloncarz said. "We're trying to provide greater flexibility, deal with these issues, provide uniformity in the system and address the pay inequity that exists."
The cost to the county for the proposed raises is $448,000 in recurring expenses, he said. The proposal would affect about 250 employees primarily in Child Protective Services, Children's Services and Adult Protective Services. Some caseworkers outside these areas would also get raises.
The county doesn't typically offer widespread pay increases for county workers outside of union contract negotiations. But this proposal reflects the "extraordinary need" to attract new hires and provide more flexibility in the department, said Brian Bray, special assistant commissioner for Social Services.
CPS workers who lobbied for across-the-board raises for all employees in the unit are not satisfied. They say the proposal would give raises to less experienced caseworkers outside of CPS who don't do the same kind of crisis intervention work.
"I'm sure there are many employees who will be happy, and there will be others who will grumble. That's just how it is," Poloncarz responded.
Money is only one piece of the puzzle.
"We know that pay isn't the only issue," said Cannon. "Do they feel appreciated? Are their ideas accepted?"
The survey by CPS workers suggests many don't think so. Most employees in front-line and supervisory positions said they did not feel their jobs were clearly defined, often felt stressed outside of work because of job demands, did not feel highly valued, and felt the department communicated poorly.
Legislator John Bruso, a Lancaster Democrat who leads the Health and Human Services Committee, encouraged the workers to do the survey. He shared the results with the Social Services commissioner and asked for a plan.
"Even with this job upgrade, this is not life changing money," Bruso said of the need for a comprehensive response. "They save kids lives. They're not doing this because they're going to be very rich someday."
Cannon and other top department administrators said they recognize and acknowledge the difficulties faced by CPS caseworkers and have worked hard over time to address concerns. She sent Bruso a five-page letter outlining the many prior and ongoing efforts the county has undertaken to address issues ranging from worker training and safety to support and communication.
Still, three-fourths of CPS workers said if they were offered a job for the same pay at a different agency, they would leave.
The survey results weren't surprising, administrators said, just disappointing.
Allison, the former CPS caseworker who now works for the San Diego Humane Society, said she still misses the work. She knows she made a difference.
"There's days when I think of getting back into it," she said, "but there's days when I think it's just not worth it."
CPS caseworkers aren't the only ones with high-stress jobs in Social Services, administrators say. And only so much can be done to make a job so inherently challenging any easier. First Deputy Commissioner Sharon Rochelle pointed out that CPS caseworkers have an above average turnover rate nationally, not just in Erie County.
"Do we want to continue better? The answer is yes," Cannon said, adding, "At the end of the day, vulnerable children and families need us."