Emotions ran high in response to my September 16, 2013 article “Social Workers Deserve Higher Pay Now.” While there were several interesting suggestions on how to address the issue of low salaries, three things are abundantly clear. Social workers are frustrated on the issue of compensation, they are angry at the NASW, and they are hungering for leadership and advocacy.
At the time of publication 36 readers commented on the article, a significant number given the newness of my blog. Here is my completely and thoroughly unscientific categorization of those comments.
- 39% of the responses featured some form of expressed frustration (complaint) as the dominant response; of those
- 6% asked that someone do something (i.e., “Help!”)
- 11% offered to help, offered information, or at least one suggestion
- 22% straight up complained
- 8% took a stand in support of higher salaries for social workers (without making a complaint, as such; e.g., “It is high time social workers received compensation that appropriately reflects their contributions to society.”)
- 16% commented without taking a stand in support of higher salaries (e.g., “Social workers knew what they were getting into when they signed on for this profession.”)
- 3% offered direct assistance to anyone who advocates (e.g., “I can’t do this alone, so if you want to make something happen count me in.”)
- 34% contributed meaningfully to the discourse in one of the two following ways:
- 28% provided research or the names of sources where research can be accessed, and or at least one suggestion about how to approach the issue of advocating for higher salaries
- 6% expanded the dialogue by reblogging my article, providing links, or sharing via other means
Here are excerpts of some of the comments.
“About time social workers & pay equity came into the 21st century. I have endured low low wages for 36 years.”
“…this issue comes up again and again … we are the lowest paid among those complaining (psychologists, psychiatrists, etc.). No one will step up as an organization because of fear of “colluding.” I get that this is a real legal issue (or is it?), but it is laughable. Really? “They” won’t allow us to talk to each other about these ridiculously low salaries? “They” are afraid of us? And our $43,000 salaries? Really?”
“We should not accept that Social Worker=poorly paid.”
“I was lucky enough to become a union member when I became a CPS social worker, which directly affected my pay in a positive way. I would call for social workers to unionize through the help of NASW.”
“Most social work(ers) that do fieldwork are working over 40hrs and are not being properly compensated and there are not enough incentives for anyone to stay in this field.”
“With Medicare cutting reimbursements to the medical field, and most likely private insurers will do the same, I don’t see how social workers will get paid higher.”
“I have been involved in discussions regarding salary with social workers on LinkedIn, however invariably the conversation turns to “we didn’t get into social work for the money”, as if there is something noble about undervaluing your worth. I didn’t go into social work to be living in poverty, either.”
“Would also be nice if social workers received credit towards their student loans as teachers do.”
“I work two SW jobs and I am always working. This is terrible. A 66 credit Masters to be treated and paid like a HS graduate. The not for profit programs pay even less. Where can we get some help??”
“The only thing we are doing is complaining and venting our frustrations. This energy can be directed in becoming active in our cause of insufficient salaries. Has anyone taken action?”
“For 50 years or more, social agencies have been using all available resources for the clients and hoping that the employees will “hang in there” due to their commitment. In my opinion, when we start by taking care of employees, the needs of the clients will be met in an even more superior way. There are many examples in the for-profit world of the wisdom of taking care of employees first. It results in better customer service and far better financial performance for the organization as a whole.”
“I firmly believe that NASW needs to step up to the plate. They are the largest professional social work association in the US. They have the resources (including a team of lobbyists). Unfortunately they have not shown interest in doing so.”
One of my readers was able to get a response from someone at the New Jersey chapter of NASW on the issue of advocating for higher salaries. I share this with the understanding that I have not been able to independently corroborate this as of the time of publication. I will continue to attempt to corroborate it and will update everyone via the News & Notes section of my blog.
“We are often asked why NASW does not negotiate for higher reimbursement rates for Social Workers. The answer is because it is illegal. Unfortunately, federal anti-trust laws do not allow a membership organization to negotiate payment rates. This must be done by the “employees” themselves. That means YOU. NASW-NJ is talking with NASW National about how to develop a strategy for organizing private practitioners to work collectively toward this goal. Nothing would make us happier than to have Social Workers paid what they are worth! But this is not something NASW can do on its own. Toward this end, NASW-NJ is organizing a Managed Care Roundtable to maintain ongoing dialogue with representatives of the NJ insurance companies. We also intend to use the NJ Social Work Summit, a group of representatives from all NJ Social Work organizations, including NASW-NJ, to engage all NJ Social Workers on these issues.”
It is curious to note New Jersey’s effort to organize “private practitioners (italics mine) to work collectively toward this goal” of higher reimbursement rates. While commendable, this unfortunately does not help social workers who are not private practitioners, thereby reinforcing their “otherness” and driving the wedge between clinical social work practice and “everything else” even deeper.
If the information provided by the NJ-NASW representative is accurate, if it is actually illegal for the NASW to negotiate or otherwise advocate for higher salaries for social workers—where does this leave us?
Among us are individuals with the personal or organizational resources to devote themselves full-time to the intensity of effort required to earn our profession the recognition it so richly deserves, and the compensation that all social work practitioners daily earn. It pains me as I write this that I am not one of those individuals. I cannot lead this charge because, like so many of you, my life concerns are very local. Paying rent. Putting healthy food on the table. Funding worthwhile after-school activities for children and saving for college. Exercising (remember that “self-care” thing?). And, in my own way, giving to my profession by trying to crank out a thousand or so readable words per week. After all that I do, and all that you do, what’s left?
By saying this I am in no way conceding defeat. Nor do I mean to suggest that it is all on one person or organization to make this happen. I believe what we all wish for ourselves and our profession is attainable—I simply don’t know, any more than you do, how exactly it will come about. Or when. But if we individually have no greater role at the moment than joining the chorus of those calling for change, then so be it—we cannot, and should not, fault ourselves for that. Nor should we fault others. The important thing is that we do not stop sounding the alarm and calling for change.
In the meantime, the chorus will grow louder and the debate will unfold. You and I will go to work and we’ll continue being present as we fight for our own calm, looking into the eyes of someone who hurts while we, in our own ways, also hurt. We’ll keep holding that space and in so doing offer not only our wisdom and pragmatism, but a silence our clients can step into—the possibility, the suggestion, that there is a better way. And there is.
This is beautiful work that we do. The moment-to-moment chaos characterizing much of our workday is a battle for health, happiness, and love, the proverbial “good fight”—it is sacred work. And regardless of how we are compensated or our willingness or ability to do anything about that right now, let us never forget it, and never lose focus.
I personally thank each and every one of you for the courageous, whole-hearted work that you do. The world is a better place for your efforts.
The public sector can certainly unionize. I work for a county government and I’m union. NASW recently spoke about advocating for higher wages for social workers in their newsletter, so I know it is something on their priority list. The first thing we need in order to get higher pay is title protection. There are so many people out there who are NOT licensed social workers but call themselves social workers. There are so many people working as social workers in their job descriptions yet have a degree in a different field. Until NASW can secure title protection for us we will not get higher wages. This is why I support unions for social workers. We have title protection, the job can only be given to a licensed social worker, and our pay is respectable.
Let’s start the grassroots effort of starting to lobby our state insurance commissions, public insurance (Medicaid/Medicare/military) and private insurers with a letter-writing campaign. I’ll put something together as a template letter if others will join in. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks.
Thank You For All That You Do. We Do This Work Because We Want To Make A Difference In The World, Because We Care. However, The Fact That Some Of Us Barely Make A Living Wage Is More Than Ridiculous. How Do We Negotiate For Higher Wages When Most Agencies Would Complain Of Low Finances, Especially Those Of Us That Work In The Non-Profit Arena. I Work At Minimum 50 Hours Per Week, Yet There Is No Overtime, No Real Compensation For That.
It is not the first time I heard that line about the NASW not being able to advocate for salaries. I have a friend who informs me this is inaccurate because the NASW in registered as a union and can work on issues regarding salaries. She had interned for her states chapter and had done an assignment in school about the organization.
Here in NYS there are laws against private practitioners unionizing for better pay with insurance companies. This was a law sighted by a NYS NASW chapter rep during a similar discussion on the NYS NASW LinkedIn forum. But not every social worker is in private practice. There are many of us working for agencies in various positions (ie not just clinical). When I looked up the law he was referring to it looked like it only applied to those in private practice and not to those of us in the public sector.