(THE COUIER-JOURNAL) -- State officials have warned social service workers they could face disciplinary action "up to and including dismissal" for talking to the news media without permission.
The warning, in an email Friday from the Cabinet for Health and Family Services to all employees, follows several news stories in which social workers who investigate child abuse and neglect have voiced growing frustration about acute staff shortages and rising caseloads they say puts them and the families they serve in danger.
"When everyone says it's never been this bad, it definitely is a crisis," Jeff Culver, a social work supervisor in Jefferson County, told the Courier-Journal recently.
Jean West, communications director for the cabinet, said the email from human resources officials was simply one of a number of routine reminders about agency policy that workers will be receiving. She said social workers should not infer they have been singled out.
But Culver called the email "demoralizing."
And Rep. Tom Burch, a Louisville Democrat who held a legislative hearing last week on working conditions of social service workers, had harsher words for cabinet officials.
"These people are hypocrites," Burch said. "If they (the social workers) hadn't spoken out, none of this would have ever come out."
The cabinet's email to employees about speaking to the media follows a legislative hearing Sept. 21 where a top cabinet official assured lawmakers that employees would not face retaliation for speaking out about problems at the agency.
"The days of retaliation for workers making constructive criticism are over," Tim Feeley, deputy secretary of the cabinet, told members of the House-Senate Health and Welfare Committee. "We will not be doing that to any worker."
Feeley's comments came after one social service worker who testified said she was "terrified" about speaking out.
"Most of us have been conditioned for retaliation," worker Katy Coleman said.
Feeley said in an interview that he is concerned about reports he has received about workers experiencing retaliation for raising concerns within the agency. But he didn't mean to suggest workers are free to disregard the cabinet's media policy, he said.
"We want to be able to fix things in-house and not have everyone go to the press," he said.
Friday's email deals only with comments to the news media.
"Employees shall not seek out the media to resolve concerns with CHFS policies or procedures," said the email. "Employees are encouraged to discuss such issues with their supervisors. Employees and supervisors should work to resolve or address issues through the appropriate CHFS channels."
West, in a follow-up email to a cabinet employee, said Feeley's comments do not mean employees are free to speak to reporters. Employees are "free to discuss any concerns with supervisors or manager without fear of retaliation," her email said.
"Communicating to the media is why our office exists," West's email said. "Employees are free to speak to the media 'WHEN AUTHORIZED TO DO SO' as is outlined in your employment policy. I hope this clears up any confusion."
Burch said the email about talking to the media contradicts testimony at last week's hearing by Feeley and Adria Johnson, the cabinet's commissioner of the Department for Community Based Services, its social services arm.
"This is contrary to what we were told last week, that they would be transparent and open, that we only want the best for our workers," Burch said.
Feeley said there is no such contradiction, that he and other top officials want workers to feel free to express constructive criticism within the agency so they can correct problems.
But the email has surprised and upset social service workers who have told the CJ they believed they had the right to publicly discuss general concerns about working conditions. Workers realize they are barred from discussing confidential matters such as cases they are investigating or other internal matters, they said.
But several declined to speak to the CJ after receiving Friday's email, fearing potential disciplinary action.
Culver said he will seek clarification on the policy.
"It was made very clear at the meeting Wednesday that we should not be retaliated against for speaking out about the working conditions," he said. "I feel like sending this policy out two days later conflicts with what was said on Wednesday."
Further, Culver said, the cabinet's directive that employees should raise concerns with supervisors is one reason workers are speaking out. Employees have been doing so for years "over and over on multiple levels" with no results, he said.
Workers have told the Courier-Journal, and said at Wednesday's legislative hearing, that the problems within the agency have been building for years through several administrations.
They also have started a Facebook page, Kentucky Kids Matter, where some have expressed rising frustration over conditions at the agency.
Coleman said at least week's meeting that many more workers than the few who testified feel the same way.
"There would be a lot more workers here but they are afraid of retaliation," she said.