Abstract: COVID-19 Employment Patterns and Protections: Findings from a Statewide Survey of Licensed Social Workers (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

COVID-19 Employment Patterns and Protections: Findings from a Statewide Survey of Licensed Social Workers

Friday, January 14, 2022
Liberty Ballroom I, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Molly Calhoun, PhD, Assistant Professor, California State University, Chico, Chico, CA
Ruth Soffer-Elnekave, MSW, PhD student, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, St Paul, MN
Jessica Mendel, MSW, PhD Student, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, St. Paul, MN
Jacob Otis, BA, Student, University of Minnesota-twin cities, St. Paul, MN
Jessica Toft, PhD, LISW, Assistant Professor, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, St. Paul, MN
Background: Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, social workers have been on the frontlines of service, mitigating the public health crisis that has disproportionately affected historically marginalized communities. Despite a lack of protective equipment early on, significantly impacted practice modalities, and increased social isolation across client populations, social workers have continued to uphold their duty to serve individuals, families, and communities. Yet, understanding the impact on practitioners has been secondary at best, and in many states, social workers have continued to be left out of the identification of essential workers. The purpose of this paper is to understand the impact of COVID-19 on employment, protections, and working conditions of licensed social workers in the state of Minnesota.

Methods: This paper reports on the COVID-19 findings from a large-scale exploratory study; all licensed social workers in Minnesota (N=14,469) were invited to complete an online survey via Qualtrics regarding the impact of the pandemic on employment, working conditions, and workplace safety from the perspective of frontline workers, supervisors, and administrators. Over 2,500 licensed social workers took the survey. Analysis included descriptive statistics and thematic analysis of responses to open-ended questions which asked how their work life had changed since the pandemic began.

Results: Across the pandemic, licensed social workers in Minnesota not only stayed employed (76.25%), but another 15.20% reported increased hours. Just over half of the participants reported requirements to have in-person contact (51.3%), with less than half of those in manager positions reporting that employees had to have in-person contact (43.6%). While 65.9% of employees strongly agreed or agreed that organizational management provided enough protection during the pandemic, 81.8% of participants in management positions strongly agreed or agreed that employees were provided with adequate protective equipment. Overall, 61.5% of participants felt very or well protected from contracting COVID-19 at their workplace. Participants described changes in work such as new virtual service delivery, increased workload and telehealth practice, increased severity in client symptoms, and stress and burnout challenges for social workers. Finally, social workers reported significant changes in organizational policies and procedures.

Conclusions and Implications: Throughout the pandemic, employment patterns in Minnesota illustrate that social workers have been essential to the public, not only through maintaining employment but working increased hours to meet the demands of client systems. Additionally, while managers felt direct practitioners had adequate protections, fewer direct practitioners reported the same. Ultimately, participants reported that the pandemic has resulted in major changes to service delivery which they had taken responsibility for, including increased workloads, more symptomatic client systems, and more stress for social work practitioners themselves. The findings from this study are timely as we begin to understand the impact and outcomes of a global pandemic on the social work workforce, clients and organizational structures. It informs future programmatic and policy decisions regarding employee protections and the essential roles social workers play particularly in a prolonged crisis, and in its aftermath.