Methods: Data were derived from a nationwide survey of the OSW workforce across a variety of cancer care settings, conducted August–September 2020 (during the COVID-19 pandemic). Salary data were collected via a single ordinal variable item asking respondents to indicate their salary range in $10,000 increments. A second single item asked respondents to indicate whether they currently had student loan debt, and if so to indicate their current loan balance/debt (i.e., < $5,000; $5,001-$30,000; $30,000-$60,000; $60,000 and more). Demographic and work-related characteristics, including job title, work setting, years of experience, and OSW-Certification status were obtained. Crosstabs and chi-square tests were used to examine whether salary and debt differed by demographic and work-related characteristics.
Results: A total of 1055 respondents completed the survey. The greatest proportion of OSW (80.7%) working full-time reported salaries in the $60,001-$70,000 category. Salaries differed by professional title/role (e.g., direct service provider, manager/supervisor), type of health service organization (e.g., NCI-designated cancer center, community cancer program, non-profit service agency), years of cancer experience, and OSW-Certification status. Three-fourths of OSWs (n = 783) reported having past or current student loan debt, including 15.6% (n = 161) reporting debt >$60,000. Younger and recently graduated OSWs and OSWs of color were more likely to have greater student loan debt than their counterparts.
Conclusions and Implications: This study enhances the existing knowledge about the current salaries and student loan debt levels among OSWs, which will in turn better inform subsequent steps for advocating for the profession. Although the most commonly-endorsed salary range ($60,001-$70,000) is higher than that of social workers ($51,760) reported by the U.S. Department of Labor, it is much lower than that of other oncology professionals. In addition, the large proportion of loan burden among OSWs is concerning. Furthermore, the burden of student loan debt is disproportionally shouldered by younger and recently graduated OSWs and OSWs of color. Policymakers should work to improve salaries and other benefits for OSWs to ensure that their patients have access to qualified social service professionals and to facilitate OSWs’ access to existing loan forgiveness programs – and to expand such programs – are warranted. Targeted policies and programs are needed to enhance the recruitment and retention of younger OSWs from underrepresented backgrounds and thus increase the diversity of the OSW workforce.