The California Association of School Social Workers(CASSW), National Association of Social Workers, California Chapter (NASW-CA), and the California Society for Clinical Social Work(CSCSW), urges institutional and elected leaders to actively participate in the systemic and public actions necessary to address salary parity and increased wages for the social work workforce in the state of California and beyond. Our workforce is struggling, our communities need social workers now more than ever, and salary continues to be one of the top barriers for workforce sustainability. It is time for those in leadership positions to implement the change that is necessary.

From the words of social justice activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing to prevent us from paying adequate wages to schoolteachers, social workers and other servants of the public to insure that we have the best available personnel in these positions which are charged with the responsibility of guiding our future generations. There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American citizen whether he be a hospital worker, laundry worker, maid or day laborer. There is nothing except shortsightedness to prevent us from guaranteeing an annual minimum—and livable—income for every American family. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from remolding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.” During these unprecedented times, while the mental health of our communities is suffering in dire ways amid war, health crises, and disasters, we cannot turn a blind eye to the human capital that is necessary to alleviate the pain and suffering of our communities. Social Workers need to be resourced to succeed. The State of California, the most populous state and one of the wealthiest, can and should do better.

The substandard salaries of Social Workers reflect inequality and social injustice. Why do we pay those who help and care for the vulnerable the least and pay those outside the helping profession more? Many providers in the social work community express concerns regarding low salaries compared with other disciplines with less education. Of note, Social Workers undergo specific and intensive social work training, and many have either or both a Bachelors and Masters in Social Work from programs that adhere to national accreditation standards monitored by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). Further, many Social Workers hold licenses to practice independently as a licensed behavioral health provider which necessitates Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSW) to obtain a license from the state Board of Behavioral Sciences and receive 3,000 hours of clinically supervised training. Social Workers engage in practice in schools, child welfare agencies, non-profit organizations, hospitals, clinics, criminal justice settings, and veterans’ services in the community and provide much needed services for children, adolescents, adults and older adults. They provide prevention and intervention services, link clients to needed resources, provide mental health treatment, substance use treatment, prevention and intervention services in schools, all public systems, and higher education, and services to keep older adults living independently.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for Social Workers is $51,760 per year, based on a 2020 nationwide survey. That is significantly lower than many professions with only a Bachelors’ degree such as physical therapists, accountants, nurses, and occupational therapists, and it places professional Social Workers well below the median household income in California of $75,235. Although mental health issues, substance use, child and elder abuse and social problems are prevalent and impact functioning, in our society, we undervalue the work that is done to remediate these issues. There must be equal attention to the behavioral health needs as there is to physical needs given the evidence time and time again demonstrates that root etiology of chronic conditions is often tied to social and psychological factors.

Especially now after the COVID-19 pandemic, anxiety disorder, depressive disorders, suicidal ideation, and other mental health issues are very common in our children, family members, friends and in our communities. The work of Social Workers is more important than ever to help with prevention, early intervention, and treatment. The unique perspective that Social Workers provide includes the person-in-the-environment perspective that allows Social Workers to look beyond the psychology, and to take into account the bio-socio-cultural-environmental issues that impact individuals. They are also trained in identifying organizational and systemic solutions and implementing macro strategies that have the potential to address client and community needs at a broad scale. Social Workers come from a strength-based perspective, and they partner with individuals to help them address concerns and live a quality life. Social Workers make a significant impact on their communities by supporting children, families, communities, and the larger society. And, critically, Social Workers often reflect the communities they serve as there has been intentional effort within the profession to strengthen the pipeline from community to social work education. Investing in a diverse provider community means investing in meaningful access for consumers to be served by those who reflect similar identities and languages. This is a proven strategy in service delivery for the establishment of a productive therapeutic relationship.

The direct and indirect economic costs of mental disorders are very high, further supporting the need for early intervention and treatment by Social Workers. A review of publications on cost of major mental illness literature from 1990-2003 in the U.S., the U.K. and other countries found that the negative economic consequences of mental illness far exceed the direct costs of treatment.

Due to abysmal social work salar, fewer students are attracted to the profession, resulting in a shortage of social workers. There is a detrimental pattern of devaluing mental health providers that needs to be addressed. There must be public and organizational policy shifts to address the pay inequity and recognize the value of Social Workers and the positive impact they have on the community.

Our policy & action recommendations to push for necessary reform are to:

  • Examine how public funding reflects accountability measures to ensure counties are adequately funding their contracted providers, including analyses of how county agencies provide limited funding for Requests for Proposals (RFPs). Public programs usually use a competitive process, forcing organizations to bid lower to provide the service. These government entities should work to change policies so that they provide adequate funding to their contracted entities. Government agencies also need to work to make recommendations to the state should more financial resources be necessary to adequately resource their contractors. They can analyze the minimum salaries required to appropriately staff and run a program relevant to their regional context and provide these data points to the state to help inform resource allocations. They can evaluate the compensation so that non-profit organizations are not forced to only hire less skilled recent graduates due to the inadequate budget only to lose their workforce to higher paying social work employers such as healthcare, government, or for-profit groups. Patients with severe and persistent mental illness usually receive services from non-profit clinics funded by the county as these organizations act as safety net institutions for our marginalized communities. These clinics should hire highly skilled Social Workers rather than student interns or recent graduates who are collecting hours toward licensure. If the county provided adequate funding for compensation of skilled staff, our patients living with more severe mental illness would be more likely to be served by experienced providers. Further, newly trained Social Workers and/or interns would receive ongoing support and guidance from experienced professionals, which has evidenced direct impacts to decreasing burnout and turnover rates.
  • Ensure private funding reflects workforce priorities. Foundations who fund non-profit organizations ought to expect and ask their grantees to allocate meaningful salaries to their employees that are equitable to the level of pay of their own foundation staff and/or pay levels that reflect employee education relative to the living standards of their local regions. They should simultaneously ensure their grant awards are sizeable enough to reflect this level of personnel need. If funders want positive outcomes, there needs to be an investment in those human beings who hold the potential to actualize these outcomes. Social Workers are a primary driving workforce in these organizations.
  • Invest in building organizational capacity to prioritize behavioral health equitably with physical health. When an organization, such as a skilled nursing facility or an acute care healthcare facility, invests in the behavioral health needs of their patients, there is no doubt that outcomes against recidivism and readmissions take a positive turn. Data continuously points to the fact that when providers work to address social determinants of health there is a direct correlation to positive health outcomes. Institutions ought to engage in organizational introspection to evaluate the priorities of their mission, which means defining the value of whole person care. Much of this includes evaluating what the Social Work salaries and caseloads look like within an organization. If you are paying Medical Social Workers less than those of a bachelor’s level profession and/or staffing their positions with a higher patient-to-provider ratio, then the organization needs to pivot more deeply into transformative change to prioritize behavioral health. Invest in your Social Work professionals, because investing in them means investing in the well-being of your patients and their families.
  • Support Consumer and Title Protection for Social Work. In the state of California, any individual can call themselves a “Social Worker” without having a Social Work degree from an accredited program. The vast majority of states across the nation have some form of Social Work Title Protection and California lags significantly in implementing this important statutory protection. Consumers are not given the right to clearly understand the training of a professional who calls themselves a “Social Worker” and Social Workers are not credited with the rightful recognition that honors their extensive social work training. Recognition impacts perception and ensuring the Social Work title is only used for those who are specifically trained in social work strengthens the workforce pathway to meaningful wages.
  • Help change the narrative that Social Work equates to low pay. Join our associations in our efforts to educate the public about the valuable roles Social Workers play in their communities and the diversity of their roles and skillsets. Help us educate and empower our workforce to deny unlivable wages and stand for salaries they deserve.

Social Workers do great work to help vulnerable populations across the lifespan; children, adolescents, adults and older adults. This is work that is needed for us to have a moral and just society, and yet we compensate Social Workers inadequately and value their work less than other disciplines outside the human service sector. Policy shifts at local, county and/or federal levels are needed to recognize the value Social Workers bring. The cost of Social Workers is far less than the economic cost of mental illness/substance use. Advocating for higher compensation for Social Workers will help address the shortage in workforce, attract more individuals to the field, and provide much needed services in prevention, intervention and postvention. The great work of Social Workers is highly valuable and needs to continue for our state and our nation to thrive.

Change is overdue. We are here to support Social Workers to advocate in their fields and to move organizations ready to exemplify change. Thank you for your partnership in ensuring our communities can access the workforce that they need.