Wage Stagnation and the Undervalue of Social Workers

While many social workers work primarily at the micro level and provide treatment to individuals, children, and families in some form or another, we must not forget our macro and societal level values for advocacy and social change. The societal and structural inequities of our communities are often neglected due to the high volume of individual, family, and community needs balanced against the low wages for their carers and not enough resources to meet the demand.

social-workerWith this in mind, I have been progressively evolving toward a strong calling to impact change in our profession to improve outcomes for social workers. The impact of the profession and the work of social workers often go unnoticed when identifying the resources to help increase outcomes for vulnerable populations. More specific, I believe as a profession we are not receiving our due recognition and benefit for the career commitments we make to those we serve.

During many recent well publicized contract negotiations in Ontario among many social work professional sectors, it became apparent that we are an undervalued and misunderstood profession in terms of the phenomenal cost that many of our colleagues experience from being professional helpers.

In particular, there has been well researched and documented evidence supporting the personal, professional, and familial toll social workers experience from the sustained levels of stress. Social workers often carry and live with high rates of trauma and secondary trauma in which many experience on a daily basis.

The most blatant inequity our profession experience is in contrast to our first responder partners and colleagues, namely Police, Fire, and Ambulance personnel. There is seemingly little backlash at the societal level with the rate of pay that Police are deservingly provided. However, the rate of pay difference is consistently $20-$40,000 per year compared to our rates of pay.

Even more substantial is the retirement benefits that come with being a Police officer, for example. Due to their duty and risk, they have an earlier retirement age granted to them as a benefit of protecting the public and placing their lives at risk in their jobs. However, many public sector social workers jobs have the same hazardous designation as police officers without any of the support, resources, or compensation.

With this in mind, it is very apparent both anecdotally and empirically, the extreme high rates of psychological, emotional risks and injury social workers encounter from our duties. Using child protection social workers as a cohort, there have been many empirical studies completed on this group which demonstrate high rates of trauma and secondary trauma and it is now well know that adverse events in one’s work carries a very high cost to one’s health as a whole.

Anecdotally, we know that a social worker who has 10 years of experience is likely to be a “lifer” in that they will continue in a social work career until retirement. My concern for us a profession is that 5 or 10 extra years of working carries a potentially huge toll on a person’s quality of life in later years. This is easy to prove empirically with the wealth of research in the areas of chronic stress and trauma.

Obviously, I am very passionate about the life long health hazards of our work, and I would like to see our profession really take the time to consider all that we know about the risks of our work and more generally how to compensate people for the cost of caring.

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