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Social Worker Shortage Looms If Field Keeps Relying on Unpaid Student Labor

Amid agency budgets cuts and declining social work enrollments, unpaid internships continue to lower the wage floor.

Suzanne Burge, a social worker, works with a hospice patient named Nicholas Gagalis, 90, in Queens, NY on February 23, 2023.

Anyone who has ever interacted with New York City’s vast social welfare system has probably come into contact with a social work student. For those who haven’t, it might come as a surprise that much of the case management, housing stabilization, crisis intervention and counseling services for people who are low-income, criminal legal system-involved, experiencing homelessness, or disabled, taking place at social service agencies across the city is performed by first- and second-year unpaid master of social work interns.

The Council of Social Work Education (CSWE), the accrediting body for social work education in the United States, requires students to complete 900 practicum hours toward a master of social work degree. While experiential learning is critical to students’ education, social work internships are also a product of budget cuts and labor shortages within the social service sector and often fill essential agency functions. This is despite the Fair Labor Standards Act’s insistence that students be the primary beneficiaries of these internships and that internships not displace the work of paid employees. But as paid positions are converted to unpaid internships, employees are pushed out of social service agencies while unpaid social work students who may replace them are left with excessive financial hardship.

As a result, social work students like myself are speaking out in favor of Payment for Placements, a national coalition of social work students organizing to be paid for their fieldwork, and we are not alone. A growing number of nursing students and student teachers are also demanding an end to the practice of subsidizing their clinical rotations with free labor and teaching in the face of ever-greater student loan burdens and dwindling personal savings. Like social work interns, they, too, are referred to as “trainees.”

Unpaid labor devalues often racialized and feminized care work. The feminist scholar Sylvia Federici, in her treatise, Wages Against Housework, articulated capital’s cycle of disempowerment against housewives and, by extension, care professionals. By convincing us that our care work should be fulfilling on its own, we reinforce the idea that care work is not work at all. The economics of gender-coded care work remain salient. Among 2019 master of social work graduates, 90 percent were women, 36 percent were Black and Latiné, and 46 percent were the first in their family to graduate college. These are the students most impacted by unpaid internships.

Students in unpaid social work internships experience food insecurity, reduced income and lack of health insurance coverage, and many continue to take on paid work on the side. The demands of maintaining academic rigor, an unpaid social work internship, and paid part-time work result in worsened student health outcomes and trouble maintaining relationships. Students may also take out additional loans to cover living expenses and incidentals associated with the practicum.

For master of social work students graduating in 2019, their mean educational debt was $66,000, of which $49,000 was from their social work education. Debt was substantially higher for Black and Latiné students. Despite loan forgiveness programs, such as Public Service Loan Forgiveness and the New York State Licensed Social Worker Loan Forgiveness Program, most practicing social workers who would be eligible find the application process complicated and its results mixed.

As the cost of living and the price of a social work education increases, social work salaries have remained stagnant, with the profession facing high turnover rates. The president of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) has acknowledged that neither nonprofit nor government salaries have kept up with inflation. The New York chapter of NASW reported that 34 percent of social workers have the same salaries as when they started. The average starting salary for a master of social work graduate in the U.S. is only $47,100.

Others have noted that the unpaid work of interns depresses wages for all workers by lowering the wage floor. Additionally, not only do these labor practices leave unpaid interns uncovered by programs such as unemployment or workers’ compensation, but they also continue to erode our collective social safety net for everyone at a time of growing austerity.

Municipalities across the country report a shortage of licensed social workers to staff social service agencies as the budgets for these agencies continue to be curtailed. In New York City, for example, Mayor Eric Adams’s administration cut 2,791 positions and $722 million to social services in the city’s 2024 budget. Just last month, Adams announced another sweeping round of budget cuts that would shrink the Department of Education’s budget by almost $1 billion over two years.

As agency budgets are slashed, CSWE has reported declining social work enrollments for the last five years across bachelor, master and Ph.D. social work programs. Providing remuneration for mandatory social work internships will support better mental and physical health outcomes and encourage more students to pursue careers in social work. Work in the social services is already hard enough, with social workers having to contend with ever-increasing patient panel sizes, efficiency metrics, the frustrations of navigating welfare bureaucracy, our for-profit health care system, and, of course, the secondary trauma that comes with supporting the people most hurt by these systems.

Payments for placements is not a zero-sum game. Many of the agencies where we work also lack adequate funding. Many of our professors are adjuncts who must work multiple jobs to piece together a living wage. As social workers, we must recognize that efforts to divide us through artificial scarcity are part and parcel of society’s devaluation of social work. The campaign for Payments for Placements must be jointly funded by government and private universities, some of which, like my own, with billion-dollar endowments, are exempted from paying local property taxes.

Targeted initiatives have been proposed both locally and federally to compensate social work students for unpaid internships. In 2022, the Michigan state legislature passed a bill that would pay social work interns at public universities up to $25 an hour for up to 20 hours a week of their practicum. At the federal level, Texas Rep. Sylvia R. Garcia, California Rep. Barbara Lee and Michigan Rep. Hillary Scholten recently reintroduced House Resolution 3006, the More Social Workers in Libraries Act, to fund paid social work internships at public libraries across the country.

New York State should enact legislation that would compensate social work graduate students for their unpaid labor. By identifying where social work intern services are the most needed, the legislation could target specific areas of need to support health clinics, homeless shelters, libraries and public schools. Many community-led initiatives to create alternatives to policing emphasize social worker-led interventions. Others have proposed that local referendums on de-policing, decriminalization and community care should earmark a portion of funds toward the professional development and training of new social workers through practicum stipends.

The Department of Education currently stipulates that students may not be paid for a work-study position for which they are receiving academic credit. Additionally, the Fair Labor Standards Act views internships as a transaction that benefits an intern over participating agencies. Together, both policies codify social work students’ unremunerated labor. Social workers should advocate amending the Federal Work-Study Program and the Fair Labor Standards Act to reflect the value of the services students are providing and to better reflect the labor dynamics of the profession. Universities should reassess their operating budgets to determine whether funds may be reallocated to practicum stipends.

At its core, the Payment for Placement campaign is an investment in community. The simple reality is that our working conditions affect us and our clients. The effects of an extended global pandemic and its precipitant public health and mental health crises have revealed a dire shortage of social workers. Prior to the pandemic, economists expected a shortage of 195,000 social workers in the U.S. by 2030.

Our communities need us more than ever to address challenges, such as racism, homelessness, poverty and health care inequality. We also need to build things: movements, organizations, economies of care, and resilient and adaptive social workers who can sustain the work for the long haul.

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