Social workers have stepped up in a myriad of ways during the pandemic. They are performing vital frontline work in child welfare, substance use counseling, hospital social work, and long-term care and hospice social work and they have joined an army of volunteer mental health clinicians. They are also advocating for the needs of the most vulnerable and hardest hit economically by the pandemic.
Some social workers have put their health and lives on the line to continue doing the work they have always done, but now they are considered frontline workers because they cannot do their work from home. Social workers are considered frontline workers when they hold jobs that require them to physically work with and visit clients. Like supermarket workers, delivery truck drivers, pharmacy workers, and others who cannot work from home, these frontline social workers are risking their health when out in the field.
Child welfare workers on the front lines
As frontline workers in child welfare, some social workers cannot perform their duties at home. Those working in child protection must continue to investigate reports of neglect and abuse and check-in with families already involved in the system. Unfortunately, with so many children confined to the home, incidents (perhaps not reports) of maltreatment may increase .
Children living in unsafe conditions have nowhere else to go during the day with most schools and daycare centers closed. That means some children are confined to homes where they have limited supervision, food, educational stimulation, or are at risk of being harmed. This also means there are fewer eyes on children, including mandated reporters, resulting perhaps in a misleading decrease in reports.
Nonetheless, child welfare agencies continue to receive reports of maltreatment and social workers continue to visit homes to investigate these reports. Social workers should wear masks when entering a home and do their best to maintain social distancing, although this is difficult when working with children. Child welfare agencies are trying to devise ways to increase electronic communication between families and workers to decrease physical contact. This may involve increased use of teleconferencing, video conferencing, and/or texting for check-ins.
Hospital social workers on the front lines
Hospital social workers are serving on the frontlines in health centers and hospitals across the country. Often their work cannot be confined to the home, so they are putting their own health on the line to serve others. They communicate with and counsel families who are separated from sick loved ones or sadly cannot be there when their loved one passes. They also have the added responsibility of thinking about the mental health of healthcare workers, doctors, and surgeons who are facing unprecedented levels of stress as they treat and sometimes lose patients to coronavirus. There have been incidents of healthcare workers and doctors committing suicide. Social workers, in general, have stepped up to respond to the mental healthcare needs of healthcare workers both inside and outside healthcare settings.
Therapeutic social workers
The pandemic is harming not only people’s physical health but their mental health as well. There has been a skyrocketing increase in people suffering from anxiety and depression as they remain isolated in their homes, fear going out for essentials, and have little physical contact with coworkers, friends, and family. This pandemic is reminding us that all human beings have a basic need for physical contact with others. As that has been taken away, people have begun to suffer greatly. Therapeutic social workers are on the frontlines of responding to the mental health crisis that is unfolding across our country.
Many therapeutic social workers have had to transition from in-person visits with the client to technology-based mental health. This means they will meet and check-in with clients using the phone or video conferencing. Many practitioners and practices have had to quickly set up the technology needed for remote practice and learn about the requirements and ethics of such practice. Some practices use software that helps them integrate meetings, client records, and billing on one platform. There are some advantages and disadvantages of meeting with clients by phone or video conference. Remote therapeutic work was something many practitioners and practices were looking to offer anyway before the pandemic since it can increase client access to mental health services, but the learning curve due to the sudden onset of the emergency has been steep.
Some therapeutic social workers across the country have also heeded calls to provide therapeutic services on a volunteer basis. In New York State, for example, Governor Cuomo touted the thousands of clinical social workers and mental health counselors who responded to his request for their services. Those who volunteer are providing free counseling to citizens of New York State who can schedule an appointment with a counselor via a hotline number. Many social work students have also received special training that will enable them to provide various services during the stay at home order.
Social workers as advocates
Social workers are also on the frontlines of advocating for vulnerable communities hit hard health-wise and financially by the epidemic. Even if much of this work has had to be done online, social workers are taking a lead. Social workers continue to perform vital research functions, write policy briefs and lobby for just social policies. They also are lobbying in some instances on behalf of their profession. For example, social workers in New York have created petitions and lobbied for hazard pay for social workers who are considered frontline workers.
Social workers are monitoring relief bills and social policies coming out of Washington D.C. to ensure they provide adequate assistance to those suffering most. One policy that is being proposed at the federal level to ensure economic stability for American workers is a basic minimum income. This is a policy that would ensure no families fall below a designated income during the pandemic. Once a family falls below a certain income due to unemployment or other losses, they will become eligible to receive a monthly cash payment of a specified amount from the government. Many social workers are also advocating for expanding healthcare coverage for underinsured and uninsured Americans. Social workers are not giving up the fight for universal access to healthcare as well as the expanded Medicaid eligibility, expanded coverage by private insurance plans, and free COVID-19 testing for all.
Social work education
Finally, social workers who also are instructors at BSW, MSW, and PhD programs across the country have had to make the transition, in many cases, from in-person to online learning. This has not been easy for many social work educators, but they are making it work for themselves and their students. They have had to quickly learn new technology and best practices in delivering online education. Social work educators and administrators have also had to quickly figure out how to help students complete their required fieldwork hours and graduate on time despite interruptions to their education.
Social workers have stepped up in many ways in response to growing and changing human needs during the pandemic. Some are literally on the frontlines performing vital life-saving duties in child welfare agencies and hospitals. Others have been able to work from home but have nonetheless put in extra hours, but all are dedicated to helping Americans through this historic public health crisis. Many social workers will suffer the health repercussions of working on the frontline while others will feel the overwhelming weight of the stress and hardship this crisis is imposing on vulnerable families and their own families. But they will be relentless in doing their jobs and continue to make a difference at a time when society needs them most.
For more information about how to stay effective and safe during the pandemic, NASW has put together a list of recommendations and resources.
B.A. Political Science| Vassar College
M.A. Urban Affairs | University of Delaware
Social Policy | Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service Doctoral Program
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