LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Social service workers in Kentucky have been warned by state officials that they could face disciplinary action “up to and including dismissal” for talking to the news media without permission.

The warning came in an email last week from the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services to all employees, The Courier-Journal (http://cjky.it/2dbgUsD) reported. It follows several news stories in which social workers who investigate child abuse and neglect have voiced growing frustration about staff shortages and rising caseloads.

Jeff Culver, a social work supervisor in Jefferson County, said the email is “demoralizing.”

State 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.”

Jean West, communications director for the cabinet, said the email from human resources officials was 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.

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.

Feeley said in an interview that he’s 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,” the email said. “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.”

In a follow-up email to a cabinet employee, West said that 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.”

Information from: The Courier-Journal, http://www.courier-journal.com