The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Rewarding the “Compliant” Client: The Case of Refugee Resettlement

Thursday, January 16, 2014: 2:00 PM
HBG Convention Center, Room 102B Street Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Jessica H. Darrow, MSW, Doctoral Candidate, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Social workers interacting with clients at the front lines of service delivery are challenged by balancing support for clients’ agency, with the need to have clients comply with worker demands. While prior research has looked at this challenge, to date research has neglected how workers who serve the marginalized refugee population manage this issue. Yet, in refugee resettlement, the challenge is ever present for the caseworkers tasked with helping their clients find work. Federal refugee resettlement contracts track the time it takes for local resettlement agencies to find work for their clients. And the Refugee Act itself states explicitly that the legislation is intended to support refugees in finding work as quickly as possible. This paper contributes to the literatures on client compliance, refugee resettlement, and organizational management. It explores the tension resettlement workers face when trying to balance the demand to get their clients to work quickly, which requires that their clients comply with employment worker requests to take any job, against the interest of many of their clients, who would prefer to hold out for higher paying or higher skilled jobs.

Data for this paper comes from an organizational ethnographic study that uses a street-level approach to understand how resettlement policy is implemented. Qualitative research was conducted over an 18-month period at two urban resettlement agencies operating comprehensive services. Research methods included over 150 interviews with 75 subjects, extensive observation, and archival review of relevant documents and contracts. Data was coded using a theoretically based matrix, and analyzed with the guide of street-level theory.

This paper finds that workers at both resettlement agencies deployed the terms “compliant” and “employable” when making decisions about how to divvy up scarce employment resources among their refugee clients. In a context of high unemployment and limited job availability for low-skilled workers, resettlement workers determined which clients would receive supplemental employment assistance, access to job interviews, and support with upward job mobility based on the extent to which clients cooperated with their employment caseworkers. Cooperation meant showing up where and when the caseworker asked, interviewing for any job available, and then accepting the first job offered, regardless of quality. Categorizing clients as ‘employable’ and ‘compliant’ provided workers with a decision rule when making choices about providing access to these resources. The result of this process was that clients were trained how to behave in such a way as to gain greater access, or they were subject to sanctioning in the form of resources being denied or taken away.

The findings from this paper show how ‘compliant’ clients experienced one form of refugee resettlement policy, while ‘non-compliant’ clients experienced a different form. These findings may have implications for refugee resettlement managers and practitioners who might rethink the process for, and effect of, divvying up resources based on client need, as opposed to client behavior. Finally, these results suggest the need for further research that studies the refugee clients’ response to the ‘compliance’ demands of their resettlement caseworkers.