The pandemic has put a severe strain on social workers who face increased client needs while also dealing with their own impacts of Covid-19.
A December 2022 survey of its members by the National Association of Social Workers, CT Chapter (NASW/CT) found that since the pandemic began 14% of agency-based social workers have left for private practice and within the next two years 29% of the agency-based social workers are considering leaving agency practice for private practice. Another 14% are planning to change employment and 10% of all respondents plan to retire within the next two years. The pandemic has increased work pressures on social workers with 57% of the survey respondents reporting increased work stress. Even if the survey findings are only partially correct, it speaks to significant problems to come if the social work workforce concerns are not resolved.
The 2022 legislative session dealt with issues that will assist individuals seeking to enter the field of social work, however supports for the current workforce remain largely unaddressed. Social workers are the largest profession providing mental health and social services to our state’s residents and are in critical need of support for their work.
The following are necessary steps to preserve and retain the state’s existing social work workforce.
- Create a Behavioral Health Advocate: The state has a long-standing Office of Healthcare Advocate that has been a model for other states. This office assists consumers in understanding health insurance and advocates for consumers to assure they receive the health care they deserve and are covered for. We call on the legislature to use this successful model to create a Behavioral Health Independent Provider Advocate to assist independent providers in addressing a myriad of problems with health insurers. House Bill 5321 creates an Ombudsman office.
- Paid mental health days: Employers who offer paid sick time need to explicitly recognize mental health as an accepted reason for using a sick day. Starting in mid-2022 the National Association of Social Workers began offering two mental health days as acceptable use of an employee’s accrued sick time. Precedence exists in the legislature having adopted language allowing for public school students to have up to two non-consecutive excused absences for mental health.
- Longevity bonuses: Many employers now offer sign on bonuses to attract applicants. But how about the current employees? We call on employers to offer “stay-on” bonuses to those social workers who have been employed for five or more consecutive years.
- Increased salary and reimbursement rates: Social work is largely a women’s field. Women get paid less than men. This needs to change. We call on the legislature to increase funding that is dedicated for increased social work salaries. Private sector salaries should have equity with State of Connecticut social work salaries in the social worker and clinical social worker classifications. Likewise, insurers must increase reimbursement rates. Insurance rates go up each year, with most insurers having gotten double digit increases approved for 2023. It is time reimbursement rates rose too.
- Support for providing LMSW supervision: Gov. Ned Lamont has launched the CT Health Horizons Program that will fund MSW schools of social work to expand faculty and increase graduation numbers. Most of those graduates will attain an initial license and must be under professional clinical supervision until such time that they become an independently licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). LCSWs who provide the supervision need to have a reduction in workload to conduct the supervision and should be compensated for the added responsibility.
- Build clinical career paths: Employers need to develop career paths for senior clinicians to advance in the organization and be paid at an enhanced salary comparable to management. Experienced clinicians should not feel they must move into management positions to improve their economic status.
- Provide funds and release time for continuing education: Licensed social workers are required to attain 15 hours of continuing education per license year. Employers should offer reimbursement for completion of required continuing education and release time during work hours to attend relevant continuing education programs.
- Lower licensure costs: On an annualized basis Connecticut has, by far the highest social work licensing costs of any jurisdiction in the nation. We are also one of only six states that have an annual renewal. When the state ran into fiscal deficits in the past, professional licensing fees were raised. So, with the state projecting $2.8 billion in surplus it is only fair that fees be lowered. NASW/CT calls for a 50% reduction in the licensure renewal fees, and renewing every two years as 41 other states do. This will set the fee at approximately the median for all jurisdictions and put Connecticut in the mainstream of biennial renewal.
Since the start of the pandemic social workers have stepped up to deliver mental health services in the most trying of times. Now it is time for the Lamont Administration, CT General Assembly, insurer’s and employers to step up too.
Cheryl Wilson is President of the Board of Directors and Stephen Wanczyk-Karp Executive Director and of the National Association of Social Workers Connecticut Chapter.