As a profession, social workers are advocates. We’re led by values of social justice, the advancement of the vulnerable, and promotion of dignity and basic rights for all. In the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, there is an immediate risk to social workers’ lives, and we must also focus on advocating for ourselves.
It seems no small coincidence that in the United States, a profession of human dignity and equal rights is held in the lowest esteem of professionals across measures which also includes pay scale and representation in management, leadership, and politics. This is an important time to declare our commitment to defending the most vulnerable and establish our expertise as the profession of social justice.
As the pandemic begins to take effect in the United States, the inequities woven into the structure of our society are increasingly laid bare. As states are mandated to shelter in place, who among us are excluded from shelter at its most basic? As we adhere to mandates to maintain social distance and self isolation in the interest of public health, which communities are more likely than others to be targeted and harmed?
Social workers sit adjacent to and alongside societally marginalized groups through our daily work, personal histories, and professional passions. We demand a voice at the table as decisions are made that will impact the fabric of our society for generations to come. Indeed, by virtue of our profession’s holistic lens, social workers have a critical perspective on the current crisis facing our country and our world. We have long been unsung heroes of multidisciplinary solutions to large-scale problems, and are advocating now for an amplified role in formulating the response to COVID-19.
Social workers have been organizing in protest of the increased risk of exposure to COVID-19, largely due to our employers’ negligence in acknowledging the full scope of the problem and accommodating the unique needs that have arisen in light of the pandemic. In Maryland, the government has closed schools, restaurants and non-essential businesses. Even with these precautions our hospitals may become overwhelmed by acute need and do not have the personal protective equipment or plans in place to support the health and safety of social worker staff. While social workers have been deemed essential by the state, we are underutilized by our organizations. We have not been asked how our key clinical and critical thinking skill sets can best be applied in healthcare settings, to the detriment of ourselves and our patient populations.
The primary conflict facing our profession now is that the cacophony of social work voices, often overlooked frontline responders, are somehow still not valued highly enough to warrant support and advancement from the very organizations that are meant to be championing our cause and working alongside us to inform change. As social workers we know we are only as strong a voice for our client and patient populations as we can be for ourselves. Our profession of advocacy and organizing is only as good as what we advocate and organize for. If our boards and associations will not stand up for us and our communities then we will find other ways to make our voices heard. This is the story of a rallying cry. Social workers are fed up.
We require elevation as a profession, acknowledgment of our function reflected through representation in leadership and pay scale, and the respect that we have earned as essential staff at the frontlines of this crisis. It is only when social workers and our representative bodies advocate successfully for ourselves that we can effectively advocate for the communities our profession has committed to serve.
In such times of uncertainty, we are first demanding that social workers be protected appropriately in order to be both physically and emotionally prepared for the tasks at hand and ahead. We believe this advocacy will impact other communities as well, at macro levels of society. The recommendations for immediate action below are meant to guide organizations employing social workers as well as policy makers and political leaders at the local, state, and national levels:
- Provide protective equipment to all client-facing social workers, regardless of the limited nature of in-person services.
- Allow pregnant, elder, and otherwise immunosuppressed staff to stay home or work from home with pay and health benefits.
- Encourage social work services to occur remotely as possible. Indeed, non-medical personnel should be able to work from home if they so desire, and the social work role in “essential” settings such as healthcare should be carefully examined for opportunities to rotate remote and in-person services to limit exposure for the individual and community. A lack of teletherapeutic infrastructure is not an appropriate reason to require in-person client contact (see public school systems for example).
- Make clear organizational policies emphasizing that clients stay home and practice social distancing as much as possible. Trust social workers to utilize their clinical skill set to appropriately assess for their clients’ safety and needs.
- Hold all organizational meetings online and prohibit in-person meetings.
- For Healthcare organizations, encourage coordinated care in service of clients and families having preemptive discussions regarding treatment, including the designation of healthcare decision-makers and completion of advance directives.
All social inequalities are magnified in this crisis. We urge elected officials and health care organizational leaders to respond to this pandemic on a scale comparable to the threat, and make sure that we are protecting working people, low-income people, and poor and societally marginalized people, many of whom may be social workers.
Social Workers Against Solitary Confinement (SWASC) seeks to abolish the use of solitary confinement and supports social workers in its fight against this social injustice.
This Educator|Resource offers a comprehensive overview of solitary confinement that includes voices of those who have been affected by it, the ethical dilemma of health and social service providers who work in criminal justice facilities, and humane alternatives. A resource database provides an extensive set of more than 300 teaching resources that can be used in a range of social work courses. This includes courses in criminal justice and practice courses in mental health, policy, community organizing and advocacy, and social justice and human rights.
We thank the Council on Social Work Education for acknowledging the contributions of SWASC and to Yolanda Padilla for their help and support in launching this project.