Most social work students graduating with a BSW today have between $20,000 and $50,000 worth of debt; an MSW has between $40,000 and $120,000 and those with DSW or PhD even more. These loans effectively saddle social work students with a lifetime of debt. The ability of students to settle that debt and begin the next stages of their lives, however, is not offset by starting salaries within the profession. They can be as low as $17.96 an hour for an MSW in Oregon or $35,000 for an MSW in New York. Presently, the national average salary is below $48,000 annually. In comparison, nurses with their BSN, with whom social workers once had income parity, have starting salaries between $72,000 and $93,000. Furthermore, social workers on average work over 47 hours per week while paid for 35—35% of their contracted workweek is uncompensated “free labor.” Adding to the present crisis in wages of social workers, is language in the NASW Code of Ethics, which reinforces the obligation to work part time for free with a “pro bono” clause expecting “uncompensated service.” This language is but part of a larger pattern of exploitation too long overlooked by our leadership. For example, MSW students must complete up to 1,200 unpaid internships hours. In turn, this sets a pattern that pro-bono work is an obligation —which is quite different from “volunteerism.”
Furthermore, too many overworked and underpaid social work professionals also toil under hazardous working conditions. As an example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, first responders in many agencies were denied PPE equipment and expected to pay for their own masks! As our professional membership is comprised primarily of women, including people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, and first-generation immigrants, ignoring such conditions gives legitimacy to the systemic isms and inequities that our profession decries elsewhere. It is now time to address and act on such racial and gender inequities within our profession as much as we direct efforts toward the social injustices within our nation.
These small steps are meant to jump start a shift in our profession that emphasizes the value in collective action for systemic problems. Such actions replace an unfair over-use of personal self-care as an answer to burnout or expecting policy papers as a substitute for a mobilized membership. This kind of action approach would be similar to those used by far better paid nurses’ and teachers’ associations and unions.
By signing, you are taking an important step in signaling that our profession needs a new direction for the problems confronted by clients, community members and fellow professionals alike!