Abstract: Human Service Organizations Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic: Challenges and Innovative Solutions (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

All in-person and virtual presentations are in Mountain Standard Time Zone (MST).

SSWR 2023 Poster Gallery: as a registered in-person and virtual attendee, you have access to the virtual Poster Gallery which includes only the posters that elected to present virtually. The rest of the posters are presented in-person in the Poster/Exhibit Hall located in Phoenix A/B, 3rd floor. The access to the Poster Gallery will be available via the virtual conference platform the week of January 9. You will receive an email with instructions how to access the virtual conference platform.

Human Service Organizations Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic: Challenges and Innovative Solutions

Saturday, January 14, 2023
North Mountain, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Christina Huerta, PhD, Doctoral Student, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA
Hollen Tillman, MSW, Research Coordinator, University of Pittsburgh
Jeffrey Shook, PhD, JD, Associate Professor, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA
Rafael J. Engel, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA
Background and Purpose: The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in serious challenges for institutions and organizations that are primary providers of services for marginalized populations and groups. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many agencies faced unprecedented conditions such as the closing of or limited access to their physical structures, work from home, and potential loss of revenue streams. Concomitantly, their communities experienced economic, health and mental health, and educational challenges. This presentation addresses the decisions human service organizations (HSOs) had to make and describes the strategies used to support staff and their communities.

Methods: This study utilized in-depth interviews of 18 HSO leaders in Western Pennsylvania with annual budgets ranging from $165,000-$55,000,000 that provide a wide variety of services, including basic needs assistance, a plethora of counseling and treatment, and community development and economic development to investigate the impact of COVID-19 on HSOs and the services they provide. Interviews were conducted between May 2021 and September 2021. After the interviews were completed, four independent team members inductively coded and analyzed using NVivo.

Results: Three key themes emerged from these interviews: First, the pandemic created barriers to services for various populations. Despite these barriers, HSOs adapted their methods to provide for their communities in innovative ways. Even during shutdowns, HSOs stayed open and navigated changing protocols to support their communities. Concomitantly, many HSOs were not equipped with the technology to disseminate protocol changes to their service users or conduct telehealth appointments. As a result, HSOs had to adopt new technology and train staff and service users on this technology. Second, as HSOs were aware of the increased demand for their organizational services, they provided bonuses and hazard pay and focused on hiring while also maintaining a supportive organizational culture for the morale of workers. HSO leaders were open about boundaries, in the office, and at home, with work and provided time-off and mental health days. Leaders were also open about social justice issues that their staff felt strongly about and maintained conversations about political and social situations that might affect workers' stress levels. Last, HSOs adapted and expanded services to meet the ever-changing needs of their service populations. HSOs partnered with other HSOs to provide basic needs by distributing food, counseling or treatment, cash assistance, or public health-related education. It is important to note how each of these themes impacted HSO budgets, whether by increasing or at times having to scale back in certain areas, to respond appropriately to the needs of their service users.

Conclusions and Implications: While HSOs quickly adapted and responded to the call to action, they also dealt with unprecedented challenges. They found ways to deliver services so that the communities could continue to rely on their services. The new ways HSO leaders and staff responded to support their communities are likely to continue even as the pandemic evolves.