Living in glass houses: labor rights in nonprofit organizations

Labor union march for jobs--social work should be there

As we celebrated Labor Day this week, it seems like as good a time as any to bring up what we often try to ignore:

Progressive social workers committed to labor rights often have a lot of work to do in our own shops.

It’s rare to even hear talk about labor rights for social service professionals, and social workers are increasingly disengaged from the labor movement. Instead, we focus our attention (when we focus on labor rights at all) beyond our own walls, finding fault (rightly) with the unfair labor practices of other employers without adequately examining our own record. We talk about how our jobs are our “passion” or our “labor of love” without thinking about how, as employers, social work agencies can be guilty of taking advantage of employees’ dedication to clients and cause.

Think about it where you work. Does any of this sound familiar?

  • Employees are expected to “volunteer” at fundraisers and other special events, even after hours and on weekends.
  • Employees are pressured to give financially to the organization, even expected to write significant checks out of their salaries.
  • Employees are denied some of the safety measures that they deserve, including adequate supervision and support when dealing with difficult and even dangerous clients.
  • Benefits are meager, and salaries are low, but, without collective bargaining, workers have little clout. Even more, employers use their workers’ commitment to the organization and the issues to get them to accept lower salaries and limited offerings.
  • Unpaid overtime is a given, somehow that comp time never arrives…and you’re expected to take calls from the Governor two days after giving birth. Oh, wait, or was that last one just me?
  • The line between “my time” and “work time” is so blurred it’s more like a smudge. True story–I once had a former employer call me on my FIRST DAY after quitting the job to ask me to come to a meeting he was organizing, because my perspectives would be so important. WHEN I DIDN’T EVEN WORK THERE ANYMORE.

    In many ways, we are lucky.

    Many of us who call ourselves social workers get paid, some of us even quite well, to do work that does bring meaning into our lives. And, for the most part, we value our interactions with clients, the chance to make a contribution, and the colleagues alongside whom we have the honor to work.


    BUT, none of that means that we should ignore our own position as workers, and relatively powerless ones at that. If we won’t take our labor rights seriously for our own good, we should think about the kind of example we’re setting for those we serve–why should they take the risk to stand up for themselves on the job, if they see that we’re not willing to do so too?

    You can start today–talk with your coworkers about conditions you all find oppressive, and start to think about how you might work together to change them. Use your clinical skills to open dialogue with your employer and your rights, and, most importantly, how protecting them is in clients’ best interests, too. Use your research skills to learn more about labor rights in your state and resources to help aggrieved workers. Check out some of the examples of social workers forming unions to represent their interests.

    Social workers, like everyone who works for a living, deserve to be safe, fairly compensated, adequately rested, appropriately supported, and well-respected on the job. We need to practice what we’re preaching to our clients.

    And, besides, we have a lot of rocks to throw!

  • 66 responses to “Living in glass houses: labor rights in nonprofit organizations

    1. Wow… Melinda, what you are saying here rings with so much truth. While I am only a social worker in training, it is my understanding that social workers are among those who are in the most need of support in terms of labor rights. However, I also thought that they receive some protections via labor unions. Is that not the case?

      That said, I think that in general, with the economy still being in a recession and employees being in excess supply vs the demand, employees as a whole are at risk for being exploited in one way or another. This is seen by the extreme (unpaid) overtime that many employers are starting to expect from their employees across many fields or the lack of separation of work from home that has partially resulted from the leaps in technology.

      So while I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiments, I’m not quite sure how you are envisioning social workers’ or any group right now having the power to insist on better conditions without having some governmental backing…

      • Social workers are certainly protected by unions when they join them, but with declining numbers of public employees, fewer and fewer social workers are union members. You’re absolutely right that workers are more vulnerable during times of economic recession, and that organizing can be more difficult within those conditions, but it’s also true that we saw the strongest labor movement in our country’s history arise from the Great Depression…really, power depends much more on solidarity than on external economic conditions. We’ve seen successful organizing campaigns, that resulted in better conditions and higher wages, for janitors and drywall hangers and farm workers, all industries at least assumedly more vulnerable than social workers, so I think it’s more of a question of raising our consciousness and our willingness to fight, than of waiting for the best time.

        Thanks so much for your comments–I know that you will be a great addition to our profession!

    2. Melinda-I absolutely love this blog! To be honest, I did not think that any attention at all was drawn to the conditions that social workers face. We often go above and beyond for our agencies and sometimes that does mean being in threatening or positions that are harmful to our own health. Sometimes I think our concern for the client(s) and our passion for helping people gets in the way of our own well being. I think social service agencies try to do trainings on compassion fatigue and taking care of ones self, but is it really enough? Despite the term “take care of yourself” that we often hear, we still have to work many hours without great pay, be subject to dangerous situations, make sacrifices to meet client needs, etc. I can not stress it enough that we are lost within the loops as workers. There needs to be more of a change so that social workers can continue to enjoy what they do and not feel the “burn out.” I believe at any job, employee mental health and physical well being should always be #1. In social service jobs it tends to fall somewhere down the line. I am glad that someone took notice.

      • Thanks so much for the feedback! I think one of the missing ‘connections’ is that putting clients’ interests first is absolutely consistent with emphasizing employee well-being; we can’t allow ourselves to fall for a false sense of competition between these two aims, as though anything we do to take care of staff is somehow taking things from clients. Another issue is the very real risk that, when we have a general reality that employees are not well taken care of, their mental well-being will suffer, such that they may then make inexcusable decisions–including not doing what clients need, when they really should. It’s almost like, because I am suffering over here, I’m going to take this short cut there, and it all balances out, right? When of course it doesn’t. Have you seen any bright spots? Places where your needs as a worker have been prioritized, and you have been able to really ‘bloom’ as a result? I love hearing good news, and I think it can point the way to best practices, too.

    3. Melinda and Sha’era-

      Yes, yes, a million times yes! Like Sha’era, I have often thought that this was an ignored subject and considered what it would take to unionize social workers. Obviously, no one is drawn to this career for the money, we are called to it because that is what is in our hearts. As a caseworker, the expectations we are given (and what our own families endure because of our commitment to the profession) are incredibly unfair- we are expected to essentially be on call 24/7 for any client experiencing a crisis, and with such significant caseloads, that is a frequent occurrence. We are asked not to let our clients go hungry, but with a stipend of $20 per month for discretionary client spending (with an average caseload of fifteen), this is about $1.33 per client, per month, even though we typically see our clients every week. That gives me about 33 cents to spend on a client during our weekly visits, which means everything else comes out of our pocket (this includes food, drink, supplies for crafts, school projects, etc). We are reimbursed nominally for our mileage (which inevitably ends up taking additional hours of our time to calculate and submit), but not for car maintenance and upkeep which at minimum requires oil changes more often than anyone else I know and to be frank, a car that is pretty much perpetually dirty from kids that don’t mean to be, but are sticky and messy, dirt tracked in, trash left behind, etc. Instead of a Christmas bonus, we get United Way donation forms in our mailboxes and are asked to adopt families out of our own pockets for the holidays. When schools are closed for hazardous road conditions, 90% of the time, we are expected to be out there, not just out once or twice driving to the office and back, but going into neighborhoods with untreated streets, seeing multiple clients, out on the roads every hour or so. I know many of my coworkers who have ended up being stranded for hours (myself included) in dangerous conditions because we are expected to maintain productivity and then get stuck in the snow, stranded in ice and then have to call our friends and family to help bail us out. Until recently, the only providers that were given agency-funded training in any form of self-defense were therapists… who see clients at their offices! No training for the caseworkers that are going alone into unfamiliar homes and neighborhoods, just caution to use good judgement and common sense. That is always the advice we are given, to “use your best judgement” but unfortunately, good judgement doesn’t make up productivity hours on my part when our performance is evaluated. Speaking of performance evaluations, I have been told to “stop asking” about raises (the elusive Sasquatch of social work apparently, someone knows someone who’s cousin got a raise once a few years ago but that’s about as concrete as it gets) even when all performance standards are met and exceeded during annual reviews. We are often asked or expected to “take one for the team”, and accept inappropriate behaviors from out clients in deference to the agency keeping them in services. I do this job because I don’t know what else I would ever do. I work more and make less than any of my friends, and I’m okay with that. The more I’m in school, the more I know I am in the right place. This is what I am supposed to do, this is what I WANT to do, this is what I am lucky to be able to do. I believe most people in the field feel this way. That being said, it doesn’t feel good to have your goodwill taken advantage of. And in our positions, we see so many that would be blessed to have a job that they enjoy, that they feel meant for, and a job that lets you enjoy some flexibility. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but we are professionals providing a very important service and it often feels like we are volunteers. Melinda, your response to Sha’era illustrates perhaps the most important point of all- if we do not feel supported as professionals, and our work suffers or we cut corners to “balance things out”, then it is our clients and families who lose. They deserve providers that are functioning at an optimal level, because they deserve the best we can give them, always, not just when we can.

      • Thank you so much, Sarah, for sharing these heartfelt and poignant comments. I think that we will only make real progress on working conditions when we can articulate how our fates are tied to those of our clients. That is absolutely authentic; we cannot expect to recruit or retain the workers our clients have a right to encounter unless we are providing reasonable compensation, supervision, training, and advancement. That will require a culture shift in many organizations, as well as changes in foundations’ and individual donors’ expectations, but we can do it, if we apply our social work skills and knowledge to the task!

    4. Thank you for this post, Melinda. I have been thinking about some of these issues, but not in as much depth as you and your previous commenters have been.
      I am a career changer, so I don’t have a lot of experience with social workers as colleagues or supervisors. I do ask questions, though, when I meet social workers through my practicum, at professional conferences, and in MSW classes. I have been disappointed to hear about instances of lack of organizational, administrative, or collegial support. I am troubled that, in a profession dedicated to promoting social justice, the dignity and worth of human beings, and the importance of human relationships, social workers often find themselves in positions where they are vulnerable, mistreated, and undervalued. It’s ironic that social workers are expected to advocate for the rights of others with courage, self-confidence, and knowledge, but we’re expected to be quiet about our own needs and rights.
      Social workers who feel valued and have a sense of self-efficacy can do a better job of assisting clients to feel that way too. Employees who are treated well and are happy can do their jobs better, especially in fields such as social work, where they are regularly exposed to mentally, emotionally, and physically difficult circumstances.
      I know many social workers who are very supportive of each other. They help each other manage heavy workloads and collaborate to serve their clients in the best ways possible. They are focused on working within the system, though, not on making it better for themselves. They have to take care of their clients!
      I’m wondering how social workers can take time to work on improving conditions if they are already overworked? Is it yet another thing we should be doing in our time off? How much work time, if any, can/should be dedicated to improving work conditions?

      • Great questions, Susie! One of our ethical mandates is a commitment to our employing organization, certainly, but also to our profession and to our colleagues, so I think a social worker would be within his/her rights to advocate for improved work conditions as part of work within the organization, although of course attending to tactics that are acceptable expressions of ethical behavior. Certainly it’s not sustainable to expect the ‘outside of work’ work to keep piling up, and, remember, we need to articulate that improving work conditions for social workers is not about being selfish; it’s about creating the organizations within which good client care can happen. That means that attending to our working conditions can absolutely be part of putting clients first.

    5. Emily Bell-Sepulveda

      Wow, Sarah and Sha’era, it is awesome that you have so many obstacles but manage to still find the rewarding aspects of your job. I thought that by doing a SWAAP concentration that I might manage to avoid the worst of it (a cop out, I know). But in reading Melinda’s blog I have realized that isn’t necessarily true.
      One of the things that drew me to social work, well really the major thing, is that I can work as an advocate–for individuals, families, organizations, communities. I cannot imagine going into a situation where I felt the tools to do the job were not provided, or professional/ ethical lines are toed, that I wouldn’t say something. Even at the risk of my job, I am the squeaky wheel, and sometimes I get greased (rarely) and sometimes I get sacked (a little more often). Although, when you are working directly with clients, this kind of advocacy on behalf of yourself and others could have consequences for your clients as well.
      I hate commenting on these posts because I feel like, “Who am I to say this or ask this?” when you are already working in the field and I am not. But have you attempted to organize anyone to change the organization from within? Does management understand or see that their are stresses placed upon employees that may cause productivity and morale to falter? If so, do they not care? Or has the right brand of change just not come along? Is all the trouble tied to the budget, or to a wobbly management structure?

      • Asking these questions is critical, Emily, and I think completely appropriate–one of the ways we can support each other as professionals is to help each other see our situations through different eyes. It’s true that there are significant ‘costs’ in advocating within our employing organizations, but it’s also a really important venue for our efforts, because it’s where policies intersect with our clients’ lives. Identifying the skills that we can apply within our contexts, and diagnosing the organizational culture so that we can figure out how to maneuver, is one of the critical tasks of any social worker, operating on the micro or macro level, if we are to be maximally effective on behalf of our clients.

    6. tracie haselhorst

      I have not heard about any labor unions for social workers, or maybe I have not paid as much attention to the community aspect of social work. I have worked 1:1 with clients for so long that I never thought about social workers joining any labor unions. I have worked in two mental health centers since moving to Johnson County and have observed how the two agencies differ in regards to the way they treat their employers. The first job that I had when I moved to Johnson County was a great experience but came with a huge price for my personal well-being. After a year, it seemed that I was constantly working, including phone calls from clients in the evenings and on weekends. We were expected to provide our cell numbers to clients to be able to serve them even when we were off the clock. We were expected to not engage much in conversation with our co-workers as management was concerned we were not getting our billable hours. We were expected to give to United Way on a yearly basis. After I decided that I was no longer happy working at the agency, I was hired at Johnson County Mental Health. I am lucky to be working there despite what has happened to our agency in the last two years. I believe our management wants us to take care of ourselves and we are expected not to do any work at home, unless it is necessary and documented that we worked after hours. I think in the last five years, the center has advocated for their employees to take better care of themselves. I also believe that my agency takes top priority with safety for employees and clients. During our team meetings, safety modules are completed with all the case managers. I have a strong passion for what I do and most days I am very satisfied going to my job. Before having children, clients were my first priority. However, after my daughter was born I realized that I needed to prioritize my life and spending time with my family. I think it would be beneficial for me to research information about labor rights in the state of Kansas. Thank you so much for sharing this blog. There is so much truth about taking care of ourselves as social workers to be able to work to the best of our ability with our clients.

      • I was just talking with a student in my advanced advocacy class about how to advocate for policies, within her agency, that would promote greater self-care for social workers, looking at the direct effects on workers, obviously, but also on the effects on clients, indirectly, as they are impacted by worker well-being, just as you say. And, yes, I think that, whether or not every agency ends up organizing a union, what’s important is to really shift the dialogue, so that we stop thinking that whatever we encourage workers to do for themselves is somehow taking away from clients, but, instead, seeing our interests as shared, and aligned. I am so glad that you have found a place that’s a good fit, and I would love to see you championing similar approaches in other organizations!

    7. Jessica Patterson

      I have little experience outside of the 5 years at my current agency, Johnson Count Mental Health, but can echo much of what Tracie shared about our agency compared to what I know of other agencies by talking with peers and co-workers that have had the experiences. Several years ago it was found out that many employees were completing work tasks outside of our “normal” work week, usually 5 min here or 10 min there on a phone call unexpectedly or completing that last bit of paperwork from home we forgot about. We were asked to estimate how much time had not been accounted for and turn in those records, shortly there after each person that turned in time was compensated. This also then led to more conversations from our leadership re: overtime and being much more acceptable of it when it happened only occasionally. The case managers at JCMHC are not required to work after 5pm and are highly discouraged from doing so in order to take care of themselves and their families. I have never felt unsafe working with the population as I am required to attend self defense trainings each year and our directors is very much supportive of us making the call for our own safety and trusting “our gut”. I have heard however that the change in safety precautions really amplified in importance when we lost one of our own to the hands of her very ill consumer. I have had the opportunity to see how the coming together of case managers in my office can make a difference in policy. Two years ago there was a change in how our productivity was calculated, not accounting for time off, sick, or training, we had to account for every hour we needed to be productive. Staff immediately began discussing amongst ourselves the stress that added and that many were going on vacation to only be thinking about how to “make up” those hours when they returned, somehow having to fit double the amount of billable time into one day. Each opportunity we as case managers could get someone to listen, either individually or in a group setting, we shared our concerns and how it was affecting our lives outside of work and the work we were doing with clients as morale declined. It was just last month that leadership shared that our productivity would be calculated the old way; accounting for time out of the office, education leave, or sick but the productivity requirement would go up in order to help recover the financial crisis the agency finds itself in. The entire room of staff cheered to hear this news. We were not worried about the increase in productivity but happy to know we would be getting a fair chance at meeting those numbers. It was/is a great feeling to know that as we pulled together and didn’t give up on something we felt was needed we were able to see success.

      • broadkawvalley

        You know what I appreciate most about this story you relate? How the management was willing to recognize the effects of the change in productivity accounting and work with the staff to come up with a compromise. I think more of those kinds of decisions could begin to shift the paradigm that, today, tends to equate whatever prioritizes employee well-being as somehow coming at the expense of clients’ needs…and anytime that this us v. them approach is allowed to drive organizational decision-making, we will necessarily see compromises that tend to either imperil staffs’ needs or erode client-centered practice, or both. The truth is that well-cared-for employees are those best able to meet clients’ needs, and I am glad that this is at least a conversation between management and staff at your organization. Thanks for sharing this perspective!

    8. I really related to this blog in many different ways. As a social worker in practice we often do not practice what we preach. I know as a salaried social worker, I often look back at a week and wonder how or what I could have done better or in better ways without really looking at accomplishments for the hours of work. As a salaried worker, like in the blog, our work is often over 40 hrs with no breaks and no reasonable overtime compensation. Joining a network of social workers could be beneficial. These unions could work towards justice in the work force not only for time but consideration of the work loads and considerable amount of work put into an agency outside of work hours. These projects do usually range in ongoing service of committees, trainings, and care giver planning for discharges to the community. This blog truly brings to light how social workers need to continue to advocate for themselves.

    9. This is a topic that hits home for me. I know that this degree is what I am meant to do. I have struggled in several areas to get here. In my job, we are asked to put the client first. However, it is also asked that we do this in an eight hour day. I have pointed out on different occasions that there are times that putting the client first takes longer than eight hours. What are you suppose to do when someone is pouring their life story out to you and it is time for you to clock out? Or there is a fight and the techs are having a hard time settling it? I could go on but the point is, I clock out and stay until I know that the clients and techs are safe, that is my job. I even gotten written up the other day for a client that lost one of her best friends o suicide and she told me, “thanks, I love you.” I stated back, “I love you to girl, just be careful.” This client was on the breaking point and contemplating suicide herself. Was it wrong to say that back at a time in her life that she needed someone to care?
      I have visits to the hospital and take my own car, there are no additional pay for these visits. The company is now doing billable hours, not sure how this adds up on how we do our job but it is how we are going to get raises. We have to have around 80-95% billable hours. Really? I cannot bill for the hospital hours and when we do assessments we have to do them on days that the client comes in, what if I was not there that day, does that add more hours that I have to accountable? I am struggling with this. So does this mean that I call people in my office for individuals even when those are not needed?
      I agree that one of the most important things in our field is that we forget to take care of ourselves, myself included. I hear my friends and family say Lisa are you ever coming home? I even hear it from my clients as well.

      • Yes, Lisa–you should never have to choose between being there for your own son and for your clients, at least not consistently…we need to build organizations that enable us to be our best in both the professional and personal realms. What do you think this will mean for you in your career? What can you do to find a balance? What types of supports/policies might help you the most? How will this factor into your career search?

    10. I am thinking that they will not work with my practicum for this next year and I will have to resign. I do enjoy my job and working with the clients that I have. I have started leaving more on time but in certain crisis I still stay. I know that I can balance my life and my son. This is not my dream job but it is a step in the right direction and has offered me experience. My goal in my dream job is to work with the military soldiers looking into the realm of PTSD and substance abuse but not narrowing it quite yet. I know that once the college is over and life is settling down there will be more time for myself and my son to enjoy.

    11. We were just talking about this topic in Mrs. Althouse’s organizational community practice class. I was not sure where I stood on this topic of union’s for social workers and should we go on strike since we provide a valuable community services. But after reading your blog, I realized something I learned in my ethics class. “I must be able to advocate for myself before I can advocate for my clients.” We do need to lead by example, then our clients have a solid example of how to advocate for their self. I like your example of getting together with other co-worker and discuss how you can find ways to communication and use your voice to appropriately address concerns in the workplace with the employer. And to do research to back up what you want to discuss, we must “social work our employers” because how we are treated will impact our clients. Also, In the past I would do my best to avoid conflict but I have learned that conflict is the first stage to bring about needed change.

      • Thanks for your comment, Laurie! Yes, certainly we wouldn’t want to be part of the reason that clients suffer through unjust situations, because they had learned from our example to tolerate them. And we will soon find that an organization that doesn’t support us won’t affirm what our clients need, either.

    12. Stephanie McGuire

      In class I advocated against social workers creating unions out of the fear that ultimately the clients could be harmed by not receiving services if there was an employee strike. After reading your blog I do agree that it is important for social workers to advocate for themselves in the workplace. There has to be a balance between work and home life in order to avoid burnout. I always hear the term self care and understand what it means but as a single parent going to school full time, being in practicum, the little time I have left I enjoy spending time with my son. It was brought up in class how other higher paid professions like nursing seem to be able to take better care of themselves because they are able to afford to go on vacation, go to the spa, out to dinner, etc. I do feel that this is important especially when working so intimately with clients and in difficult scenarios and would be of great value to help social workers de-stress. I am passionate about social work as my career but it is depressing to think of how much my student loan payments will be compared to my salary with an advanced degree. I only see life getting crazier once I graduate and try to find the balance between working to support my family and still being passionate about my job.

    13. I definately agree that Social Workers are not compensated for their time and their work, yet we stil continue to fight for the rights and needs of our clients and consumers. The place that I work, lets see 7 years and one pay raise. It definately is not the salary that keeps me around, it is the relationships that I build along the way and the differences that I make rather they are small and far between. It is difficult to advocate for the needs of the workers because we get so caught up in helping that we forget to help ourselves. I have many clients that are intrigued by the work I do and would like to do this in their future jobs. I tell them this is great we need more compassionate people but I tell them it is work for great karma and good feelings, not so much the paycheck. I think I work harder and am more emotionally involved than any of my peers in different fields, which makes it hard to continue when feeling overwhelmed or burnt out. But I continue. Over the years i have been given a lot of extra paid days off but have realized and discussed with supervisor that it is not a day off if we are still held to the same productivity as our peers. Meaning that yes I can take more time off, but I have to work harder and longer to make up for the time I take off which just doesnt make sense, and does not feel rewarding at all. So once again working for the good of the people and having lots of good karma are the perks of the job. I would definately be interested in joining the forces for betterr pay, but to find the time and take away from our clients is a continuium of balancing and taking care of ourselves. We as social workers need to be greedy when taking care of ourselves or else we never will and this can be detremental to our clients in the long run.

      • Isn’t that something, Kim, that you might find yourself not encouraging a client to go into social work, as you help him/her craft the best future? That, to me, says that we absolutely need to do something different!

    14. This topic really speaks to me as I agree that social workers are not compensated very well for what they do, especially in a rural community. I specifically work with the mental health field in a community mental health center, and I recognize that with all of the budget cuts and constraints on government dollars agencies are forced to make budgets tighter and tighter. But when does it stop? Our agency tends to have a very high turnover rate of social workers, probably due in large part to the reasons you listed above. The social workers that stick around are those embedded in the community or so passionate about the work they do that it is work the sacrifice of making more money.
      Being an exempt, salaried worker I also know all too well about unpaid overtime. For our summer psychosocial children’s program, I have worked more than 60 hours a week several weeks in a row and legally am only compensated for 40 hours. I love my job and I am grateful to get paid to do something I love, but it gets really frustrating knowing that some of the staff in the program are making more than me being their supervisor when I calculate how much I am making per hour after I put in overtime hours.
      I agree that one of the biggest topics that social workers need to focus on is advocacy—for ourselves. We are always first in line to speak up for those we stand with, but are less likely to stand up for ourselves.

      • And it’s hard to put in everything that you would otherwise want to, when you feel (correctly!) that you are not being compensated for that additional effort. What do you think you could do to effectively raise this concern with your supervisors? What arguments might appeal to them? How could you approach the conversation from the perspective of what’s best for clients, the organization, AND you?

    15. I guess I have always been part of a field where I was not compensated well and took money out of my own pocket to ensure my clients in the nursing homes I worked for had the right supplies. I was an activity director for around 12 years. Some companies had great budgets and others not so much. So I took from my own. I knew going into social work that the pay was not going to be astronomical but I never thought about advocating for myself in that respect. I also did not think about how social workers should get together and unionize.
      I just thought that going above and beyond was expected and especially working in healthcare you are told to do “volunteer,” more like mandated without pay to show up and help. You are expected to stay late if patients, families and staff need extra help. I have done so many times and griped about how I was not paid for it and that was part of “other duties as assigned” clause in the job description. And many other staff who are excellent at their jobs refuse to leave their hourly position with benefits because they can make more than becoming a director with a salary and benefits.
      But we should stand up for our profession, we are licensed, we have incredible and valuable knowledge to provide the people we serve. This is a great example of how we need to advocate for ourselves at a macro level. Thank you for all of your insight.

      • Wow, Emily–really poignant examples of these broader trends. We must attend to the corrosive effects of these expectations on our profession (who would become a social worker, but isn’t, because they just don’t feel that they can absorb the financial hit?) and on our organizations and, then, ultimately, our clients? How do staff who are feeling tired and overworked and underappreciated experience their clients, differently than those who are affirmed and supported? What would it take to approach these personnel issues differently, and how would that feel?

    16. The short duration in the field, I have noticed several of the expectations of certain social work agencies such as being expected to stay late regularly, volunteering my time after-hours, and the lower salaries (because I’m interning – haha). I suppose as in any job, a certain balance should be sought in the “energy” that is exchanged between agency management and employees. If employees are expected to continuously give their time and effort without the organization giving proper consideration for the employees’ lives and responsibilities outside of work, the system will become unsustainable.
      Of course the responsibility partially lies with the organizations to review, revise, and improve upon ethical business practices, but I like that you noted it is also the employees’. I am not assuming that the organizations are “off-the-moral-hook”, but ethics and fairness tend to get blurry when agencies are forced to work under budget. Thank you for reminding that it may be wise for those in the social work field to apply some of the advocacy skills to our own benefit at the appropriate time.

      • Yes, Jacob, the understanding of organizations as systems is certainly very apt here. Employees are an essential input into that system, but also one that can be misspent and inadequately supported, if there aren’t the right ‘throughputs’ in place to guard against that. I don’t think it’s just a question of business practices, though, but also a culture shift that’s needed, to see employees not JUST as resources to the organization, but individuals with dignity and worth, just as we are called to with our clients. It’s certainly not always the case, but I think that sometimes the organizations whose practices re: workers are concerning also have some issues in terms of their interactions with clients, suggesting that it’s as much a question of value orientation as efficiency. Sharpen those advocacy skills, then, yes, and also the lens through which you see organizational culture.

    17. I am not currently working in a social work related position but I have been a volunteer at Cancer Action for over nine years and I have been able to observe first hand how their organization operates at the Johnson County branch.
      When reviewing your list of all of the “extras” that some of the social workers may have to contribute in addition to their normal job duties – I saw only a few items that the social workers at Cancer Action have been asked to contribute or participate. Many of the clients that come to Cancer Action are walk-ins; if they happen to show up at 11:45 the social worker is expected to work through her lunch to help the client. There are also fundraiser events, banquets, and volunteer awards luncheons that the employees are expected to participate in – some of which happen to be on the weekend. However they are not penalized if they say “no”; one social worker cannot handle large crowds and will not work at any of the Komen events.
      There is one element in the operation of Cancer Action that helps in keeping the workload from overflowing on the social workers and that is the amazing network of volunteers that Cancer Action has built over the last 20 plus years. Well over 100 volunteers offer their time and services in various tasks such as helping with mailings, providing transportation to appointments for clients, helping in the office with clerical or reception staff, and making blankets, afghans, hats, and scarves for clients. The services that the volunteers provide takes a good chunk of work that might have been delegated between the social workers had the social workers not been involved to perform the work.

      • How is the climate at Cancer Action, among staff? Do they feel overworked and overwhelmed, or are their needs mostly met? This is all subjective, to an extent; what is one person’s insufferable burden is another’s invigorating work load. But I do think we have to worry when an organization operates with the assumption that social workers will fill the gaps with their own sacrifices. It’s not good for recruitment or retention, and what kind of message does it send clients, about respect for everyone’s boundaries?

    18. Jessica Facklam

      I completely agree! There are so many incredible people who work in not-for-profit agencies who are underpaid with ridiculously large caseloads. This creates burnout and an inability to fully focus on all clients’ needs. People work so hard and many times have little support from administration. I feel fortunate to work for an agency that, for the most part, is understanding of the needs of their employees and has a strong focus on self care, not only for the clients served, but also for the employees. Companies are only as good as their employees and it is up to us to speak up for what we need in order to provide the best care possible!

      • Yes, Jessica, we have to get to a point where we don’t see clients’ and employees’ needs as in conflict but, instead, understand that strong organizations are built in partnership with satisfied, well-resourced, well-supported employees. I’m glad that you are experiencing an organization that is modeling that approach. What do you think helps them resist the temptation to cut corners, that befalls so many other nonprofits?

    19. This blog hits home. I know my agency is very small. One case manager per program and though we have a sign on the door that says “No walk-ins”, it’s almost a unspoken rule that when an individual or family comes in, we (the case managers) are expected to help, regardless if we are on “lunch or break”. After doing that a while I noticed I was almost going through days not even going to the restroom. It was big wakeup call to realize I was not taking care of myself and as poorly as I get paid, the least I could do is take care of myself. I totally agree!

      • This is a poignant example, too, of the true cost of failing to attend to workers’ needs. It’s not ‘just’ that it’s bad for workers to not get the breaks that they need. It can also lead to resenting clients, hoping that no one walks through that door, and seeing them as what stands between you and health and happiness…all recipes for negative interactions and interference with the development of good client/worker relationships. Taking care of workers, in other words, isn’t just about employees. In the end, it’s also really about clients.

        • I agree totally. I have started paying close attention to this and being aware of how this can affect my work overall. Thank you.

    20. Good, Sheria. I’m glad. I can’t wait to see the paths your career takes and the many contributions you will make, in a variety of settings!

    21. Although I may not be employed in the social work field I have had several practicums and education from other social workers. I agree with this blog, the reason I decided to get a social work degree is because I want to make a difference in other lives. I did not choose a career based on money, but one that I would enjoy doing for the rest of my career. The current employer I work for doesn’t always allow breaks. I am a manager and often get overwhelmed with tasks, or work overload in general. When I get overwhelmed I tend to get grumpy or extremely tired. I hoping that when I get a career in social work, that there will be some “me” time, but also being capable to provide clients the best services possible.

      • So one of the things you’ll want to ask about, Kaitlyn, is the culture in the organization you’re considering, in terms of employee self-care, time to recuperate, and support in personal and professional development. Maybe you can talk with current and former employees, ask about a ‘typical’ day when you’re interviewing…thinking about what it will feel like to be part of a particular agency. The first step is knowing what you need to succeed!

    22. Kristina Knight

      Before reading this blog post, I never considered myself a “worker” or given much thought to the demands of the job. However, this blog post has opened me up to that possibility. There is so much emphasis on social workers serving their clients and “making the world a better place” that the rights of workers are often neglected. I think social workers themselves are even guilty of justifying large caseloads, low pay, extra hours, etc. because it does benefit the clients. For example, in my work as an Autism Para for a middle school, I have justified being asked to take home large training books or being asked to do work that was beyond the scope of my abilities/job requirements because it provided benefit to the children I work with. Social workers should demand labor rights that are appropriate for their jobs just as much as any other profession does.

      I also agree with your saying that “if we won’t take out labor rights seriously for our own good, we should think about the kind of example we’re setting for those we serve.” We cannot possibly benefit clients if we, ourselves, are overworked and exhausted to a point that we can’t think clearly. If clients perceive that we aren’t fully present to their case, then they won’t feel they are getting the best support. Additionally, this demonstrates to clients that it is okay to not be treated fairly in certain extents. For example, we would never tell a client that working overtime for free is okay, so why do we accept it? Demanding labor rights would be a good way to remedy exhaustion from being overworked and allow us to better serve the clients by setting a “practice what you preach” way.

      • Yes, Kristina…and, perhaps even more fundamentally, by trading on your dedication to your clients, and exploiting that for the benefit of the organization, don’t we run the risk of extinguishing that same commitment (or, at least, dampening it considerably)? What do you think would happen, in your case, if you said ‘no’ when asked to take on something that seems like an undue burden? How would it feel, what kind of reaction might you get…and what effect, ultimately, would it have on those you serve?

    23. Brittany Sheets

      I think that we can all agree that the mentioned issues are present across the board when looking at social work agencies. These lack of labor rights, I believe, can be directly linked to the high burn out rates that I have experienced first hand at my practicum this year. As you mentioned in the blog, those of us who go into social work do it out of the goodness of our heart. I do not know a single person who goes in to social work expecting to work a steady forty hour a week job and receive a substantial paycheck for doing so. I believe that we all know what we are getting ourselves into when it comes to the long hours and low pay that the vast majority of social workers face. However, I do not think that many of us believe we can change these issues. I mean, where are we going to possibly find the time to advocate for ourselves? Shouldn’t advocating for our clients be the number one priority? The answer to that question may vary, but I believe that we are better suited to serve our clients if we first take care of meeting our personal needs.

    24. I’d never argue that it will be easy, Brittany, but I do think that social work administrators can build organizations that defy these patterns, and, in the process, that begin to reshape expectations and norms for these practices. It’s not going to be quick or painless, but neither is any social change that matters.

    25. Natalie Reeves

      I agree completely. It reminds me of when I am exhausted and stressed and then tell a client they need to make self care a priority. Same thing! We have to practice what we preach. It’s also vital to our mission. We can’t be there for clients if we are not sufficient ourselves. I wrote in one of my discussion boards that supervisors should realize that by taking care of employees they are also taking care of their clients as well.
      I refuse to believe a lot of the negative stereotypes around social work. I expect to make enough to take care of my family.
      I expect to be valued and protected as an employee. I’m sure it will have difficulty but I can’t stand up for others and not myself.

      • I love how you framed the challenge, Natalie: we can’t buy into the negative frame about our profession, because it’s not healthy or fair, for those we serve, for our colleagues, or for ourselves!

    26. Julie Thompson

      I shook my head through that entire list, Melinda! YES, they sound familiar, and unfortunately in observing other social work employees at the agency I worked in these experiences are extremely common — not to mention they are too often neglected by agency administrators and those with the greatest ability to prevent workers from being exploited in the first place. That being said, I completely agree with your assertion that it is up to US to do something about it if we are to expect the kind of resolve we advertise to our clients whom suffer similar violations against their rights. I can not tell you enough how difficult it was, on both personal and professional levels, to preach what I was unable or unwilling to practice on a daily basis. There were many times that I identified more with my clients than with my bosses, in opinion and experience, which in a round-about way helped me develop a more complete understanding of the barriers my clients faced in attaining stability and good health while awakening my consciousness to the injustices I was experiencing as well. I believe it logically follows that if we cannot take care of our most basic needs, we become unable to tend to our personal and professional responsibilities in the manner we were intended to — from a foundation of good health and stability that allows us to not only function but progress through our involvement with work. It also follows that taking care of employees directly benefits those they serve, our clients, as we are then able to provide best service and really be in a position to help rather than hurt our clients like many of us have inevitably done as a result of exhaustion, crisis, and at times apathy to what appears a hopeless pipe-dream in the context of dysfunctional social work organizations. I often wonder how much would change if the culture of the social work profession, not just that of our agencies and places of work, removed the idealization and thus pressure to conform to the super-human social justice warrior trope so many of us try to emulate in our work. Aligning ourselves with the struggles of our clients can certainly introduce food for thought in terms of rethinking how realistic it is to expect ourselves to continue to function in an environment that was not thoughtfully or appropriately designed for our benefit or to safeguard our well-being. Just as I would advise a client to set realistic goals and standards upon which to grade themselves as they attempt to grow and change, so too we must accept that even social workers can not do it all but rather must take small steps and grade ourselves on a curve as we work to reform aspects of our work life which no longer serve employees and clients alike. This, of course, begs the question — where do we begin?

      • Yes, Julie! I mean, we have to be careful, I think, not to overstate the extent to which social workers’ experiences parallel those of our clients–even a not-that-well-paid job is still a job, and our professional affiliation affords us a status, even if it’s lower-tier than that of some other professions. But, yes, it’s absolutely the case that we have a real problem in our own organizations and our own sector, if we are to be effective forces for social justice. How can we urge others to change policies and provide greater opportunities, if we are perpetrating injustices within our own systems? Thanks for your comments.

    27. This post resonated with me on many levels. Very recently I had the opportunity to see Vu Le of speak at a Non Profit Connect event in Kansas City, and his tone matched yours. He spoke about the martyr complex of nonprofit organizations – we work long hours in crappy chairs, eating our salads over our keyboards while working through lunch breaks, foraging for office supplies in dumpsters. I left that talk with an empowered feeling: we deserve better. We are just as competent and educated as the for-profit sector, and deserve a chair with back support to show for it, at the very least. (At my current workplace I daydream about just having my own phone extension…) These are just the tangible things, what people can see when they walk into a social worker’s office. But I believe this is symbolic for how the greater culture values our work, and how we ourselves value our work. I vehemently hope for a time when social capital is seen as just as valuable as financial return, and for social workers to be compensated fairly for doing work to alleviate poverty and the like. These interests should be common and not controversial, but I believe social workers could improve on advocating for ourselves in this realm – showing that our work is important to the communities we serve. It is always so validating to see colleagues and professors acknowledge the troubling truth of labor rights in social work.

      • Thank you for sharing this, Leslie. I wish I could have heard him speak. To me, it’s not just about improving work conditions for those who are in nonprofits–getting these investments in place would require redistribution of resources and an elevation of the needs of those we serve, and THAT’S what I think is so important about how little we have now, compared to what we need and deserve. I’m excited to have you in class this semester!

    28. Thanks for writing about this incredibly important topic! The number and quality of responses here attests to the fact that this is an important issue that many social workers are thinking about. When I first graduated college, I worked for a group called Grassroots Campaigns, making very little money and working 100+ hours a week. I loved what I was doing and truly felt I was working to create change and good in the world. I therefore didn’t mind working long hours for little compensation. I started really thinking about these issues when I was leading a “living wage” campaign. While I was making about $5 an hour. This seemed so hypocritical. Your comments about how we “need to practice what we’re preaching to our clients” really resonated with me. I get that many of us do this work because it makes us happy, but at what point are we being unfair to our clients by not standing up for ourselves?

      I often think about how my privileges played a role in my work at Grassroots. I was young and healthy. I didn’t have children to support and take care of. I didn’t have physical limitations and large medical bills to pay. Sometimes I thought I was less-privileged than my colleagues because (by living in a room the size of a closet) I paid my rent without my family’s support. However – the reality is – if emergency struck, I knew I always could turn to my family. That feeling of security is a privilege many don’t have. And one that allowed me to work in the role I did. I think about these privileges in the context of social work as well.

      I’m curious about what roles social workers play in labor movements? Are macro social workers involved in lobbying against policies like right-to-work? I am super interested in learning more. (It looks like the link you posted about social workers forming unions isn’t working, but I definitely plan on researching this more.) Talking to colleagues about labor conditions is great and critical in helping change organizational culture, but without addressing larger policies, we will remain overworked, under-compensated, and restricted in our ability to unionize. I really hope that when I graduate I can find a way to combine social work with the labor movement, because as you described, the goals of social work and the labor movement are interwoven.

    29. Thanks for writing about this incredibly important topic! The number and quality of responses here attests to the fact that this is an important issue that many social workers are thinking about. Although I have limited social work experience, I can definitely relate. When I first graduated college, I worked for a group called Grassroots Campaigns, making very little money and working 100+ hours a week. I loved what I was doing and truly felt I was working to create change and good in the world. I therefore didn’t mind working long hours for little compensation. I started really thinking about these issues when I was leading a “living wage” campaign. While I was making about $5 an hour. This seems so hypocritical. Your comments about how we “need to practice what we’re preaching to our clients” really resonated with me. I get that many of us do this work because it makes us happy, but at what point are we being unfair to our clients by not standing up for ourselves?

      I often think about how my privileges played a role in my work at Grassroots. I was young and healthy. I didn’t have children to support and take care of. I didn’t have physical limitations and large medical bills to pay. Sometimes I thought I was less-privileged than my colleagues because (by living in a room the size of a closet) I paid my rent without my family’s support. However – the reality is – if emergency struck, I knew I always could turn to my family. That feeling of security is a privilege many don’t have. And one that allowed me to work in the role I did. I think about these privileges in the context of social work as well.

      I’m curious about what role do social workers play in labor movements? Are macro social workers involved in lobbying against policies like right-to-work? I am super interested in learning more. (It looks like the link you posted about social workers forming unions isn’t working, but I definitely plan on researching this more.) Talking to colleagues about labor conditions is great and critical in helping change organizational culture, but without addressing larger policies, we will remain overworked, under-compensated, and restricted in our ability to unionize. I really hope that when I graduate I can find a way to combine social work with the labor movement, because as you described, the goals of social work and the labor movement are interwoven.

      • Thanks for sharing this story, Lucy. To me, probably the greatest failing of unjust worker practices within social work is who it keeps out of this work–how many people can’t afford to work the hours you did for the pay you received…and what does that do to the diversity (or lack thereof) in the profession? And what does that mean for our clients, whose chance of working with people who come from their communities may be reduced because only the privileged can afford to take positions in some of these organizations? So, in terms of social work and the labor movement, that’s a great question. One of our faculty in the School has actually done quite a bit of research about that history, and I’d be happy to connect you with him. In some cases, yes, I think that social workers have historically been involved in labor movements (I’m thinking of child labor and some health and safety regulations, in particular), but no, I don’t see any social work leadership around the right to work issue in MO, for sure, or much in the Fight for $15 fight, either. Much of that is owed to the decline in public sector employment for social workers, which means that fewer social workers have much easy opportunity to join a union (not that we shouldn’t be organizing our own!)…and this lack of exposure to what collective action looks like then shapes our political socialization, too. But I have some fantastic friends and colleagues who aren’t social workers but are doing amazing work in organized labor, and I would love to connect you with them as well. It is hard to imagine that we’ll see much progress on any of the issues we care about without building structures that bring people together to exert power.

    30. Since the beginning of my MSW degree I have expressed these same issues. The social work profession needs to take into consideration a system to build its credibility. It is often that I feel we are undermined especially in terms of fair compensation and treatment. The idea that we are in a helping industry should not be congruent to accepting poor treatment, low wages, no support, and a lack of credibility in comparison to other disciplines. I often think of the service organization I do my practicum through, for 32+ hours a week we are compensated with relatively okay health insurance and a payment of $1000 a month. During our training we were given applications for food assistance telling us we qualify. I was completely taken back by the idea that as community partners we are engaging in conversations regarding low wages, poor health care, food scarcity and yet we are okay with offering service providers the same struggles their clients face. I quickly thought about the image we present when clients and service providers are seen in the same office seeking assistance.

      I am completely okay with receiving assistance when needed and there is no shame in being someone who requires state assistance. What bothers me is that we create organizations and positions for social workers that do not compensate them enough to meet the needs of their daily life. I am not asking for excessive payment, I only ask that we fight for adequate services from our employers. Like you said Melinda, we deserve adequate compensation fair rights, support, and rest.
      I only hope that beyond organizations that schools also begin to raise this issue in their communities. To acknowledge the rights of their graduating students. Students should learn to address and demand what needs they require and how to attain them.

      • It will, of course, require a long-term commitment, Gallal; we exist within a labor market and capitalist structure that rewards people for activities different than those prioritized by the social work profession…so improving compensation and working conditions will require more than just asking for them, but building enough power to demand them…that, in turn, will (in my assessment) require emphasizing labor organization, insistence on collective bargaining, and a willingness to join in solidarity with other relatively low-wage occupations (teachers, in particular)…rather than aligning ourselves with higher-compensated professions with which we share an orientation but not, really, a labor hierarchy (like psychologists). That, in turn, will require changes in ideology and, in particular, a greater class consciousness. What do you think? What do you see among students, in terms of understanding of the labor systems into which social workers enter? What is the attitude towards unions? Where do you see this heading in the future?

    31. Isaac Sanders

      I grapple with this a lot, not only as a someone pursuing a degree in social work but as a black queer body doing emotional labor through activism for free. I have always done the good work for nothing monetary because it is necessary but it comes at a toll. Undergraduate activism was doable because of the other factors holding me up financially (that track stipend got me through most of my worries) but came at a mental cost more then once. Now, working at my practicum through AmeriCorps part time, I feel the exploitation of my labor with no resources to keep me afloat in the process. We’re expected to do work that is taxing in more ways then one and then be paid poorly because this is not a STEM field or “hard work,” whatever that means.

      The hardest part of this journey is navigating the system with my identities. I’ve been put into situations where I realize I’ve been placed there is because they needed a “black man to be a role model” or “the queer identifying person has to tell their story to get more money” and get nothing or very little in return. Applying for social services comes with stigma from my family and surrounding narratives because I am a young black man in America but I have got past that. It just should not be this way for the sake of stability for your labor. Doing Social Work is more important then what capitalism centers as important but how do we switch that narrative so I can do what I love and not possibly live in poverty? This goes for a lot of fields now a days but it is a question I grapple with every day…

      • Thank you for sharing this, Isaac. Our profession (and others, but I’m focusing on what I feel I know best) has a lot to reckon with about how low status and low wages not only reduce our power but also–and more critically–make being able to ‘afford’ to do this work a privileged experience, and one that locks a lot of people out. That’s obviously a racialized accounting, and I think it helps to explain why we have fewer people of color as social workers (and teachers, for example) than we need and want to have–they are less likely to be subsidized by families or to have wealth privilege that buoys them toward doing poorly compensated ‘feel-good’ work. Until we grapple with that, we will continue to perpetuate harmful divides.
        I am really struck–and saddened–by your experiences being exploited (that’s my word here, but that’s what it sounds like, when you’re talking about people using your story to fundraise or to attack stereotypes) by the very systems that we want to be supportive, even liberating. I wish I was surprised or shocked, but I’m not…just perpetually angry and sad. We have to be better.

    32. As an over-worked AmeriCorps member, this blog struck me (as it seems to have with others’, seeing the posts above). I have duties to my AmeriCorps service that doubles as my foundation level practicum. With my practicum, I am required to serve 16 hours per week. With AmeriCorps, I am required to serve 35 hours per week to reach a total of 1700 by the end of my service year to receive an education award. I need only 8 hours to receive my stipend. I find myself exceeding 35 hours, staying past hours at my practicum some nights to catch up, spending extra hours with clients who are more complex, and using my personal time and energy thinking about my practicum site and clients and how to better serve each of them. As (essentially) a caseworker, I understand the difficulties and time consumption of the field that many students have expressed above.

      The thing that catches me is I could be working for the money, and fulfill the bare minimum by spending only 16 hours per week at practicum. However, I think empathy is what separates this field from others. More strict boundaries COULD be set to avoid running over into personal time, but since I am serving my community, I pay less attention to conditions in my work environment that may not be just.

      This post has drawn me to consider some of the oppressive structures in my practicum environment, even if I do not consider them ‘oppressive’ as a service member.

      • Thank you for this comment, Courtney. Do you think it is precisely because social workers may not ‘police’ their own level of investment in an organization, due to their commitment to the issue/population/organization, that it is so important that we build these structures, that provide those checks and balances? Or is it social work’s particular obligation to advocate for social justice that makes the ways that organizations sometimes trample on employees’ rights particularly problematic? Or both? I ask because, to me, this speaks to whether we think that the rules matter most, or the outcomes…a question that has implications for other dilemmas we face, as well. I look forward to talking and thinking about these issues with you over the semester!

    33. Like most of the comments here, I wholeheartedly agree with all that you said on this topic. The best advice that I was given going into my first practicum was to advocate for myself if I ever felt that I wasn’t getting what I should be out of my practicum experience. When I first started my practicum, I felt the same pressure that most people do whenever they start their first jobs. Wanting to be quick to impress, I seldom voiced any concerns during supervision, and focused on doing what I was told. Overtime, I began to feel dissatisfied with the lack of work I was completing at the agency. Luckily, my supervisor understood the concerns I was voicing, and provided me with more responsibilities around the agency that made my work fulfilling.

      I believe that the advice I was given before I started my practicum should also extend to those who are working professionally in social work settings. The amount of energy that you put into advocating for others should also be put into advocating for yourself, and for your coworkers who could also be in the same position as yourself. With how much passion social workers have for advocacy, you would think that labor rights wouldn’t be a major issue within the field of social work. The social workers who take a more cautionary approach to getting what they want (and failing to do so) should learn how to find their own voice, and speak up for what is right for themselves.

      • I see two key intersections between social workers’ own standings within their organizations, and the work we want to do for those we serve. First, speaking up for ourselves is a chance to hone our advocacy skills, get more comfortable with conflict, and navigate ways of seeking solutions. Second, the more power we have within our organizational contexts, the better positioned we will be to do what we want to do for our clients. I am so glad that you had this experience at practicum; while we might want everything to go smoothly for students in the field, it’s probably ultimately more valuable that you have a ‘laboratory’ to work things out when they don’t.

    34. Don’t get me wrong, I really do enjoy my practicum, but there have been times I felt like I wasn’t meeting some imaginary gold bar set by the agency. I spent the first semester doing literally everything I could do, and received the reputation as the intern who jumps at anything. Which is great… until the extra work becomes expected work. Between semesters, my high anxiety surrounding speaking on the phone returned, and I found out my financial situation is a lot worse off than I was planning. Like a comment above, we were told to advocate for ourselves at our practicums. After all, we’re there to learn. But this second semester has made me feel like a failure to my agency, stripping away the glamour of a positive reputation and replacing it with “eh”. I spoke to my field instructor about my anxiety and what I can do to help it – I was told to power through it (kind of funny advice when working with mental health, I thought). As I’m sitting on my computer, spending yet another hour researching options for non-residents with financial assistance to be able to afford to pay my next heating bill (I’m currently at 0 resources), I’m given a glare when I (embarrassingly) admit I can’t afford the $25 to attend a conference that I “should be grateful is so cheap”.

      I was drawn to this profession because ever since I was a young child I’ve thrived on putting others before myself. I’ve never thought about social work unions, let alone given any thought to the points made in this article until now. Translating my definition of advocacy to include myself has been challenging. Not being able to find a common ground when I do speak up for myself is extremely frustrating, yes. But I’m also the same girl who last year would have rather sat quiet instead of interrupting the status-quo to ask for help, so I’ve learned A LOT. And I’ve learned the importance of this type of thing, even if I haven’t found success with it yet (which not being successful 100% of the time is something I’ve learned to accept, too). I don’t consider what I’ve experienced in my practicum worthy of putting up too much of a fight, but I do think it’s important to remember that many “little” issues can be just as damaging as one “big” issue.

      • Thank you so much for sharing this, Chelsea. First, I am sorry that you are not getting support for your anxiety. If that’s apparently not forthcoming at practicum, have you sought out resources on campus that can help? Please let me know if I can assist with that. Second, you raise a really important point, about how often (and how easily!) what we ‘volunteer’ to do becomes an expectation of what we will do. And, in the process, how the bar gets raised (not just for yourself, but also for others, so you might think about your conflict re: not doing more in those terms–how are you also helping to protect those who will come after you?). The sweet spot, of course, is where people are able to carve out demanding but rewarding and manageable jobs that align with their passions and simultaneously fill the organizations’ needs. The issue is that that doesn’t happen as often as would be ideal, meaning that, sometimes, people’s talents are left untapped, while, other times, they are overworked and burned up (if not out). I would be happy to sit down to talk with you about any of this, and/or to help you navigate to the field practicum office to see what they might suggest. And I would say that learning to be our own best barometer, rather than always depending on the approbation of others, is a really, really important lesson. I would put that in the category of ‘takeaways’ from this practicum, and I believe that it will serve you well.

    35. I think this is a really important topic for social workers in particular, but also for everyone who works at a social service or nonprofit agency. Competitive wages, decent benefits, and realistic work/life balance are important factors in drawing talented, dedicated workers to any sector. We believe and hope that all social workers are there for the mission–advancing social justice and helping those in need–but our society is telling social workers and those they serve how much they really value them when social workers are constantly overworked and underpaid.

      I spent the last 5 years working for a nonprofit mental health agency where everyone constantly felt undervalued. Some of the kindest, most compassionate people I knew worked there, but the way they were treated and their labor was valued was a constant topic of conversation and cause of low morale. In fields with such high burnout rates due to the demanding nature of the job, it’s even more important to offer competitive wages and balanced workloads. This of course starts at the top. For social workers and other social service agency personnel to be well paid, their services have to be well funded. This means higher reimbursement rates, bigger grants, and more donations. Society has to value our services. I think a social work union and a powerful social welfare lobby would be ideal, but this movement has to start with social workers advocating for themselves and educating not only our employers, but also the general public about the important work we do.

      • I’m thinking about what you referenced, Whitney, about how corrosive these kinds of labor struggles can be, to organizational culture. Surely it was detectable–to clients, Board members, volunteers, and other observers–that people who worked there were not only feeling less than fully valued, but probably also that they had worries about their own financial strains, on top of the pressures associated with providing mental health care, often to people in crisis. And, YES, to needing to start with building the profession’s power and standing, within the larger context. I don’t know if you’re able to come to SW Day on 3/7, but my message is about telling the social work story, so that more policymakers and other influential folks understand and value what we provide. It’s not just about recognition; it’s about leverage.

    36. While social workers know to advocate for other people, it can be very difficult to advocate for ourselves in terms of pay, benefits and work conditions. Everyone wants to be a team player, but sometimes conditions are not okay in the work place and then an employee is left feeling frazzled and underpaid and as though there is no way to make improvements.

      Of course, this occurs in non-social work realms as well, but social workers can feel especially complicated about self and group advocacy in the workplace. Some organizations bestow a sense that if you are a good person, you will do whatever it takes to get the work done, even if you do not have the proper resources and that’s just the way the industry works.

      Social workers need some avenues to voice their concerns. Supervision is possibly a good way to do that if the social worker feels like it is safe to genuinely voice issues. I also believe that it can be important for employees to openly talk about pay with each other if they so desire. It is something that can hold organizations accountable. As an example, when I was working in a for-profit organization unrelated to journalism, I learned that a person with less experience than myself started at a higher salary. The difference was enough to be upsetting. I wasn’t sure if part of the reason for the differential was because the employee was a man. While I did not voice any concern about this because I was leaving anyway, I felt it gave me another lens with which to look into that organization (a negative one) and it gave me the experience to know that I deserved to work in a better employment culture.

      • That’s a really important point, Bethany, about the connection between transparency and effective advocacy; here, it’s really true that we are hindered in our ability to push for changes if we don’t have the information we need about what the reality looks like and, then, how far we are from where we need to be. Thanks for these insights.

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