Abstract: Bearing a Disproportionate Burden: Racial/Ethnic Disparities in Experiences of U.S.-Based Social Workers during the COVID-19 Pandemic (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

Bearing a Disproportionate Burden: Racial/Ethnic Disparities in Experiences of U.S.-Based Social Workers during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Sunday, January 16, 2022
Dupont Circle, ML 3 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Abigail Ross, PhD, MPH, MSW, Assistant Professor, Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service, New York, NY
Julie Cederbaum, MSW, MPH, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA
Lisa d. Zerden, PhD, Senion Associate Dean, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Jennifer Zelnick, ScD, Professor, Touro College Graduate School of Social, New York, NY
Betty J. Ruth, MSW, MPH
Ting Guan, PhD candidate, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC
Background: COVID-19 has exposed disparities rooted in structural racism (Tai et al. 2020; Yancy, 2020) and gaps in social safety nets most often filled by the social work workforce (Abrams & Detlaff, 2020; Banks et al., 2020). Specifically, the pandemic has shone a light on frayed social and health systems and resource scarcity, affecting housing, food insecurity, unemployment, and increases in mental distress, substance use, and violence (Banks et al., 2020). While social workers have served as frontline workers responding to the needs of vulnerable populations during COVID-19 pandemic, little is known about how social work professionals themselves have been impacted. This paper explored the impact of COVID-19 on social work professionals’ mental health, physical health, and access to personal protective equipment (PPE).

Methods: This study used a cross-sectional web-based survey of social workers practicing in the United States (N=3,118) to examine the impact of COVID-19 on practicing social work professionals’ mental health, physical health, and access to PPE. Practicing social workers were recruited for survey participation primarily through collaboration with the NASW. Data on demographic and workplace characteristics, physical and mental health, and safety concerns was collected between June and August of 2020. Univariate statistics were used to characterize the sample. Ordinal logistic and multinomial regression were used to achieve the research aims.

Results: A total of 3,118 social workers participated in the survey; most identified as white (n= 2,643; 85%), with an average age of 46.46 years of age (SD=13.79). The majority of participants reported either moderate or severe concerns related to mental (55%) and physical (55%) health; 36% of respondents indicated concerns about PPE access. Respondents’ concerns differed by demographic (e.g. race, age) and workplace characteristics (e.g. setting, role, region). Regardless of setting, role, or region, social workers of color experienced COVID-19-related concerns at a significantly higher rate compared to their white counterparts across all domains.

Implications: Unsurprisingly, social workers of color are bearing a disproportionate burden compared to their white counterparts. Findings highlight an immediate need to deepen understanding of the factors that contribute to these trends and identify mechanisms to support the frontline social work workforce most impacted. It is well established that health disparities are rooted in inequities facilitated by institutional and systemic mechanisms that organize the distribution of resources and power differentially across lines of race/ethnicity, class, and gender—but especially race/ethnicity; it is the unequal allocation of these resources that manifest in unequal social, economic, and environmental conditions—the SDOH—that fundamentally drive these inequities (Weinstein et al., 2017). While many health and social service organizations have taken up workplace-based Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice (DEIJ) initiatives, these alone will do little if they do not redistribute power and resources within the organization and will do even less in the absence of large-scale policy changes that redress SDOH inequities. Both organizations employing social workers and professional social work organizations must act to preserve the health and well-being of the entire social work workforce.