When I was in college I had a professor who stated that you could make a good living as a social worker, but you would have to work very hard. I have found this to be true. A social worker with a masters degree can generally perform the same duties as a psychologist including diagnosing mental health issues. The same professor said that agencies like to hire social workers because they are cheaper than psychologists. When we asked why since they perform the same work, he said it was because social workers are willing to work for less. Certainly there are barriers to social workers asking for more, but that doesn’t mean that they should accept the status quo. It needs to change and it’s possible the process has already begun.

As I stated there are several barriers to social workers asking for better wages. I believe in collective bargaining and if a social worker works at an agency that has a union, they can try and implement changes by becoming active in the negotiating process. Many unions are ran by the most popular employees and not those who understand the function and workings of an organization. Having a social worker as a member would be a plus as social workers are trained to help organize resources for change. However, social workers are reluctant to participate in unions because they are worried about the negative consequences for their clients. If they were to go on strike their clients would be without a major part of their support system. For some, the consequences could be devastating. Social workers are taught to put the client first and anything that gets in the way of that feels like a barrier.

In addition, most social workers became interested in the field because of a high regard for people and their problems. Their primary motive is not money. That allows others to take advantage of their motivation and use it as a reason to pay them less figuring they will accept lower wages. Again, the social worker is placed in a bind. They would like to be paid fairly, but they have difficulty saying no when they are aware there is a need for their services. Remember, at times social workers hold the life of their clients in their hands. Other professions who have the same responsibility make much more than a social worker. Currently according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook social workers earn a median salary of $42,480 a year. While many of our clients may think that this is a lot of money, to a highly trained healthcare professional it is on the low end of the scale.

Due to low pay and horrible working conditions there is a high rate of burnout and depression. Burnout costs agencies dedicated employees and leads to a high turnover rate which costs more money in the end. An improvement in pay and working conditions would be a good start in making sure that an agencies social workers are physically and emotionally healthy. In 2011 social work was rated at #3 for the most depressing job by health.com. Two years later a CNNMoney report listed social work as the #1 most stressful overworked and underpaid job. Certainly, while material changes need to be implemented such as improved wages and working conditions, because of the high stress the job creates agencies need to have a mechanism in place to assure the emotional health of their employees as well.

There is good news. The Occupational Outlook Handbook states that there will be a 25% shortage of social workers in the next five years. We are needed. This may be an opportunity to ask for more when negotiating a salary. I suggest that all candidates for a job ask for more money than has been traditionally agreed to. Again, they need us. Let them pay what the market can bear.

I also suggest that if you can join a union do so. If there is not a union and you have the time, try and organize one. It’s part of what we do.

Finally, if you can afford it I suggest you join the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). In addition to the extra perks is the fact that there are other disciplines that perform similar tasks as we do, but no one has heard of them. The fact that we have a strong lobbying force on capitol hill has made our profession more visible. Almost everyone has either been involved with a social worker or at least knows what they are. The NASW has facilitated this process.

Some social workers are beginning to demand fair treatment. In Los Angeles County California social workers are striking.

For the first time in over a decade, 3,500 social workers who care for Los Angeles County’s most vulnerable children went on strike Thursday to protest their excessive caseloads and demand the hiring of additional workers.

Source: Huffinton Post

Hopefully, this will lead other social workers to speak out. When we improve the working conditions, we also improve the care we can give our clients.

I am proud to be a social worker. I talk about my profession with friends, family members, and the community. When I hear someone disparage social work I talk to them to find the reasons for their unhappiness and try to correct any misconceptions they have. What a great job. How many jobs can you have where the wife of a client gives you a hug and tearfully thanks you for saving her husbands life. Of course I didn’t do that. But I gave him the tools necessary for him to make the change in himself. We are used to asking for things for our clients, it’s ok to ask for things for us. With the incredibly important job we have and the eclectic knowledge, professional values, and wide ranging skills we possess, we deserve it.

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