SF Public Employees Union: Newly Passed Prop. F is Unworkable

Proposition F, the measure that requires welfare recipients to be referred to drug screening if suspected of drug use, was approved by 58% of San Francisco voters in the March 5 primary election.

Prop. F passed with less than half of the City’s registered voters casting a ballot, and did so despite opposition from various political and advocacy organizations, medical providers, media outlets and labor unions.

Two days after the election, Service Employees International Union Local 1021 announced that it was moving to void the result. The union filed an unfair practice charge with the state’s Public Employment Relations Board, alleging the City failed to inform and negotiate with the union before Mayor London Breed placed the measure on the ballot. The union also asked the state board to hear the case immediately. Last month, the local’s lawyer wrote to the City Attorney’s office, demanding that the measure be struck from the ballot citing the same reasons, but missed the deadline for removal. 

Local 1021, San Francisco’s largest public-sector union, represents around 16,000 workers across City agencies tasked with serving low-income and unhoused San Franciscans, including clinicians who would administer drug screening to people enrolled in the County Adult Assistance Program (CAAP). 

In a press statement, SEIU Local 1021 president Theresa Rutherford said, “At a time when City eligibility workers, social workers, health care workers and other vital public service classifications are critically short-staffed, adding new requirements, processes and responsibilities to their daily workload makes Proposition F all but impossible to execute fairly and consistently without substantial new investment in staffing, training and worker safety.”

Rutherford said homelessness and overdose rates will continue to climb after the proposition takes effect. “All of this will further negatively impact City employees’ working conditions, not to mention exacerbating the very problems Prop. F claims to address,” she added. 

Another concern with Prop F. is that it presumes a plentitude of available treatment options. The City has 575 substance-use treatment beds available at City-run facilities, with fewer than 100 open beds.

Currently, housed CAAP recipients receive up to $697 per month, while unhoused ones get $105. Most recipients use the money to pay for housing or shelter, through the Care Not Cash program. Recipients who are physically able must participate in a “workfare” program, but can forgo the requirement if they voluntarily enter a drug treatment program. 

Under the new measure, a recipient must enter a treatment program if they test positive for illicit drugs or miss a screening appointment, or risk losing their welfare check—and whatever housing is attached to it.

That worries Jennifer Esteen, a psychiatric registered nurse at the San Francisco Department of Public Health who is chapter president of SEIU Local 1021. She estimates about 2,000 people currently enrolled in the program will lose their benefits, and others in need won’t apply at all. 

“They’ll avoid using services out of fear of the long arm of the law,” she said. “It’s a war on the people of lower classes. It’s unfair to criminalize people experiencing poverty. The statistics of true drug use does not explain that drug use is not limited by poverty.”

Esteen noted that her department is short on clinicians needed to conduct the screenings. Even if the City hires enough clinicians, new workers would likely be hired on a contract basis. Esteen said contract workers don’t have the same level of commitment as regular employees.

“Our municipal employees tend to have strong training,” she said. “However, short staffing tends to lead people to take shortcuts and lead them to make mistakes.”

The idea of drug-testing welfare recipients has a checkered past in the United States. The American Civil Liberties Union has found that drug testing welfare recipients is costly and ineffective. New York and Maryland considered similar programs but scuttled the plans after finding the additional costs too expensive.

A 1999 Michigan law requiring drug testing of welfare recipients was struck down as unconstitutional by a federal appeals court in 2003. Other states who considered testing programs later rejected the idea for legal, fiscal and practical reasons.

The recent success of Prop F. shows the politicization of poverty and addiction continues unabated. Jennifer Friedenbach, director of the Coalition on Homelessness, the homeless advocacy organization that publishes Street Sheet, said that “voters got a misleading and performative ballot measure that demonizes welfare recipients rather than help them.” 

She added, “San Francisco deserves better. Those suffering from addiction deserve actual solutions and real opportunities for treatment, not false promises and election year politics.”