The state Department of Human Services, whose employees like to say they are the people who care for the people who need it most, will shut down eight central offices on Fridays.

The 5,000-employee agency moved quickly to respond to Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s "Working 4 Utah" initiative and will keep as many buildings as possible dark on Fridays. The hard part for literally the most people-oriented department in state government is making sure the lights don't go out on any of its programs.

The department's supervisors say the work-schedule change has had ripple effects down to each individual served by the department's programs. It's not how it affects employees, who as a group are younger and more female than any state agency.

They are responsible, among other duties, for the welfare of abused children taken into state custody, as well as juvenile offenders, the disabled, seniors, foster families and substance-abuse prevention and treatment. The department oversee licenses for day-care centers and collects child-support payments. It also supervises sex-abuse treatment, domestic-violence counseling, crisis intervention and mental-health therapy.

Continuity of services is as important as the service itself, said the department's executive director, Lisa-Michele Church. Since the announcement, supervisors and employees have been assessing "what we do and how this might be a chance to do it better."

The switch to the longer day might actually be easier for most of the nearly 3,000 protective-service workers whose jobs by nature are less desk- and office-oriented. And a 10-hour day provides more available time to work for child-abuse caseworkers who most often visit with children, parents and foster parents in the evening.

Many factors remain unknown about how things will go day-to-day, "but everyone is being positive about making it work," Church said.

Most of the nearly 5,000 employees in the department are welcoming the chance to adopt a more flexible, self-tailored schedule that the structured five-day week didn't allow, Church said.

Most administrators can compress their five days into four, but 1,000 to 1,500 employees who are caseworkers with weekend or evening on-call responsibilities when a child or adult is in danger will have to adjust to an on-call weekend schedule that now includes Fridays, she said. The department's Division of Child and Family Services has until Dec. 4 to complete the transition, according to the governor's office.

Because the department's work is probably the most highly stressful of any state agency, a 10-hour day also provides a higher risk of burnout, and some workers are worried about the effect of one less day on the continuity of care in a case, Church said.

Looking over their shoulder during the transition, as it has been for more than a decade, will be the federal court. The workweek switch comes right at the time the federal court's oversight is scheduled to end. Monitoring was imposed as part of a settlement of a lawsuit filed in 1993 alleging children in the state foster-care system were not being protected.

If the state continues to meet the standards of care written in a multistep plan it agreed to carry out, the federal monitoring will finish by the end of December.

As a result of the lawsuit, the agency is "so tuned in to every aspect to the safety and activities of children in the system that if anything appears to be negatively affected by the new schedule, we'll know immediately," Church said. She added that she had personally discussed the work-schedule change and possible implications of it with the court monitor.

Because the department works so closely with the courts — which will remain on a five-day workweek — any schedule altering involving a Friday court date will obviously have to be taken into account by caseworkers during the week, Church said.

The state hospital, the development center and Youth Corrections will continue working a regular, five-day week.

The department also has contracts with 800 private providers whose services for the disabled and foster families are affected by the schedule change.

"We're trying to respect the governor's wishes to keep as many buildings closed as we can," Church said. "We'll obviously have things come up as we go along, but we're doing our best to anticipate anything that might hamper the health and safety of those in our care."


E-mail: jthalman@desnews.com