New York City Social Workers: Silenced on the Front Lines of Crisis

Young Men Walk With Mask In New YorkBy Dr. Claire Green-Forde, LCSW
Executive Director, National Association of Social Workers-NYC Chapter

New York currently holds a title no city or state in America wants – the epicenter of the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) crisis.

As social workers we are watching everyday, worried that our loved ones, colleagues, friends, or clients could fall ill with the ensuing complications of COVID-19 or even lose their lives .  We see and hear the inconsolable cries of our loved ones and our clients. We hear the confusion and bear witness to the chaos as we too are caught in the panic. We try to help others while dealing with the inadequate resources in our public health and social care systems that were strained before this crisis, and are disappearing now.

The National Association of Social Workers-NYC Chapter (NASW-NYC) knows that social workers are a vital resource both in our healthcare system and in the larger society.

Every day, social workers go into neighborhoods and build relationships with people that many ignore. We see the humanity in the individual that is incarcerated and those that are homeless when many in society refuse to look their way. We help support the healing of children and families impacted by abuse and violence. We provide the most mental health treatment in America, see the potential in others, and stand up for every marginalized and oppressed individual and community that exist.

Social Workers are trained for crisis

Additionally, the NASW Code of Ethics guides who we are as a profession while ensuring that we maintain the highest level of ethical practice, speak up about injustices, and advocate for equity. While we are often among the first on the front lines of crisis, and support individuals and communities through their lowest and most desperate points in life, social workers are not always valued or appreciated for our significant contributions to humanity. This is certainly evident in our low salaries compared to other helping professions, despite years of education and clinical training, our being left out from many critical discussions on policy and health care, and the crushing case-loads we carry.

As great friend and Social Work Administrator Lisa Jones-Chandler, LCSW shared, “social workers get forgotten because we work in so many settings. This is the ongoing conversation about us streamlining that and being seen as leaders in disaster response. This is a psychiatric emergency. Who better to deal with it than social workers? Everyone automatically thinks of doctors and nurses when they talk about health care workers but while we are dealing with this viral pandemic, we are forgetting how much behavioral health is behind this. Who are the people in the communities doing this work day in and day out? It is social workers.”

Social Workers are being put at risk

As amazing, intelligent, highly skilled, and resourceful as social workers are, we are not immune to the effects of COVID-19 or any other illness. We are not immune to the impact of exposure, and we are also not immune to the fears about our personal and professional safety. Despite this, what we are witnessing in New York City and in many parts of the country is that across industries, individuals, including social workers, are allegedly being put at significant personal and professional risk amidst this crisis. We are hearing stories of individuals and groups allegedly being threatened and retaliated against for speaking out about dangerous work conditions, slow crisis response inclusive of staff and client needs, and limited transparency about what is happening within their organization(s).

POLITICO Pro on April 6 released an article by Amanda Eisenberg titled “Mental health workers say they’re being put at risk by city facilities.” This article alleged significant concerns that mental health workers and other support staff in publicly run New York City facilities raised with respect to their personal and professional safety while on the front lines of COVID-19. More disconcerting is that if these allegations prove true in whole or in part, the people who are supposed to be helping in this crisis are themselves seemingly in crisis due to fear and concerns about retaliation for speaking to the media or advocating internally for safer working conditions.

As the Executive Director of the National Association of Social Workers-NYC Chapter, I have the privilege of interacting with, and representing social workers in one of the most diverse cities in the world. As a social worker with several years of experience who has worked in various settings, I have made many friends and colleagues along the way. In the past few weeks, I’ve had several conversations with colleagues, NASW-NYC members, and friends regarding their economic fears, the impact of COVID-19 on an already strained public health system, and their worries about personal and professional safety.

Fear of Retaliation

Consistent across the board in these communications, has been a hesitancy to speak to anyone, especially media, or organize efforts to advocate around COVID-19 safety in the work place. No matter their role, some social workers I’ve spoken to in various public and private sectors including education, policy, health care, and substance misuse, shared that they are afraid to speak up due to fear of retaliation.

This fear is deepened by either proximal or distal awareness of circumstances where people have spoken up and have been silenced by large organizations with public relations teams and lawyers to back them. In conversation, some noted what happened to an Amazon employee in Staten Island, NY who tried to speak up about work safety conditions in the warehouse and organize a protest. Others noted that unlike nurses, social workers don’t have large unions protecting them as one body. Some also alleged that they have been in meetings and similarly to what the POLITICO Pro article alleged, they have been warned about trying to go against the grain or posting anything negative about their employer on social platforms. Gag orders are real for some, and for a profession built on advocacy, the perception or reality of forced silence in the face of adversity, is against the very core of who we are.

Social workers are supposed to advocate and seek justice however; some believe that they are being shown that to do so, they will risk their livelihoods and the well-being of their families, while in the middle of an economic crisis. Social workers in New York City see the large gaps in community response to address COVID-19. They are frustrated at the inequitable distribution of resources, often at the risk of further social, health, and financial harm to already disenfranchised communities.

They are alarmed that we are not publicizing and discussing the very real racial and socio-economic gaps in those who are positive and those who are dying. They know that poor communities as well as communities of color are being hit the hardest. In communication with an incredible Social Work Director and friend Sa’uda K. Dunlap, LCSW on this issue, she shared that “social workers understand the structural issues that exist in our systems due to racism. We take a holistic person-in-environment approach to treatment and are able to understand how systems don’t consider inequities for those we serve. Social workers bring humanity to this work and we are not considered as front line staff though we are so necessary in all of this work.”

Social Workers Recognize Inequities in Response to Coronavirus

Dr. Claire Green-Forde, LCSW

Dr. Claire Green-Forde, LCSW

The fact remains that social workers know that the failure to address the COVID-19 crisis through a lens that is both sensitive and responsive to the structural violence and isms already inherent to our society is unethical. It calls to question our professional Code of Ethics and creates ethical dilemmas that disproportionately impact communities of color. We listen to the advice and suggestions provided for people and witness the failure to acknowledge that social distancing, wearing a home-made mask, and having adequate access to media, technology, and other platforms conducive to education and learning, are privileges that the communities we serve do not have.

We live these realities knowing that we too are at risk. We know this as we go into the front lines every day to discharge patients, visit them in their homes, provide behavioral and social health support, and remind systems to be mindful of the biases and gaps that exist. We show up, we support, we worry, and we acknowledge our own humanity.

We do this all while having no personal protective equipment, no special aspects that protect us from experiencing the unfolding trauma of COVID-19, or reduce our own risk of exposure. Social workers are necessary.

If we don’t care about social workers, if we indeed allow alleged bullying and silencing of other professions and social workers to continue, there will be no one to support our already fractured health and social care systems.  There will be no one to speak to structural violence and hold our society accountable. There will be no one to advocate for resources and services. If we continue on this path, our healthcare system will implode. Social workers are the glue bridging many systems and communities. We will not go silently into the night. Our work is to advocate and fight.

 

 

 

19 comments

  1. Thank you Claire for speaking what so many of us are experiencing in the field. I work in a NYC hospital & social workers are treated poorly by administration. The policies and guidelines put in place during this crisis, serve in the best interest of the hospital and they do not consider how it will affect their social workers. We are required to go into patients rooms without proper PPE, placing our health at risk (and the patients health) when we can easily call the patients on their room phone. We have tried to advocate for ourselves and it falls on deaf ears. We also rely on peer support and thankfully we have a great team. It is interesting that we are advocates for those who have no voice & we are often in a position where advocacy is warranted. I hope everyone continues to have the courage to stand up & shed light on injustice. The more we accept poor treatment, the more it will continue.

  2. What can we do?? In the best of times many social workers are told to work in circumstances that risk health and safety; Commonsense concerns are labeled “complaints,” and their commitment to their clients and ethics are questioned instead of engaged. Silencing social workers through prohibitions on free speech allows injustices for both workers and clients to continue unchecked. Forcing social workers to blindly follow orders results in actual harm to health, mental health, and mistakes and burn-out – not improved client care. Social work employers should be required to engage with concerns and develop protocols for health and safety with third-party review that specifically addresses worker issues, not leave it up to each out-of-touch or power-abusing supervisor and CEO.

  3. Such a thoughtful whilst provocative blog. The role of social work in the current crisis is undeniable at the frontline. In Scotland I believe our profession is recognised in the essential work we do even when we are a thorn in the side of other agencies and decision makers. I wish our American sisters and brothers well in this crisis and keep up the great work we are doing to support the most vulnerable.

    This statement from your article “Every day, social workers go into neighborhoods and build relationships with people that many ignore. We see the humanity in the individual that is incarcerated and those that are homeless when many in society refuse to look their way.” resonates with me. Would you mind if I borrow it?

  4. I work for the Montefiore School Health Program.
    We work for the hospital but provide therapy at DOE schools. Once the schools closed the hospital administrators had no plan for us to work from home; no plans For us at all. They started “deploying” us to clinics who did not want us there bc of fear of covid exposure due to overcrowding, they also had no need for us. Many of us social workers were bounced around and sent into the hospitals. Two of my colleagues sat in the cafeteria all day at one hospital. Another was asked to transport bodies to the morgue. The interesting thing is that the psychologists (our position is filled with either a social worker or a psychologist) were not sent into hospitals. They continue to work from clinics where they have telehealth sessions with our students but social workers were “deployed.” We were not given masks. Our complaints and emails were ignored. Those of us who have been out sick are either not being paid or made to use our own time. We also get emails about returning to work with not so much as a check in to see how we are feeling. The social work title means little to hospital admin. They seem to not connect us to the clinical work and experience in trauma and crisis we hold. I’ve always felt social workers are not respected As a clinical profession and this crisis has confirmed that for me.

  5. As a LICSW I feel all of this. I have yet to see anything in the press highlighting Social Workers role in this. My question is what are we going to do about it? What are nursing unions doing that we aren’t?…We need to standardize, demand title protection, boost media attention, demand appropriate pay, etc. The old saying that we aren’t in it for the money only continues to hurt us. We are shamed for advocating for ourselves and our colleagues. We are frontline, without protection, without support.

    • I am so glad to have found this article and to have seen your responses. As a LISW-CP and an advanced certified social work caremanager who works in South Carolina,I feel your pain. I agree that we are on the frontlines but are given no recognition. We need a collective voice through an organization to change this situation. NASW seems to be the place to start. I know social workers especially in NYC are tired and feel helpless,but social workers across the country should be lighting up the telephones of NASW in DC and our regional units. We must first unite and let our voices be heard through an organized means that can’t be silenced by individual groups..I hope social workers reading this article will come together,even beginning on social media,to advocate for each other. Social Workers need to realize we must first strengthen ourselves as a group,before we can impact the system.,stop the silencing and increase recognition for work. This is a critical time for us all and for the future of our field. Let’s work together to silence the silencing and strengthen each other. . Teresa Green,LISW-CP,C-ASWCM.

  6. NASW needs to do more – plain and simple. Teachers have the NEA, nurses have their strong unions, if the NASW did more build strong unions, this wouldn’t be a problem.

    The NASW should be tearing it up. Go to Bellevue and have a news conference. now is the time!!!!

    But you won’t and you’ll never get a dime from me

    • Thanks for your comment. NASW is a nonprofit association that advocates for the social work profession through legislative and regulatory mechanisms. As a nonprofit we cannot act as a labor union due to legal reasons.

      NASW Chapters, many of which have small staffs, advocate for the social work profession. They push for schools to hire social workers. They push for title protection. They push for myriad other laws that benefit social workers and the clients they serve.

      We invite you to read the Chapter Highlights page (https://www.socialworkers.org/About/Chapters/Chapter-Highlights) to see what chapters are doing on the state level. You should also visit the Advocacy and press release pages at http://www.socialworkers.org to learn more about our legislative work.

      We are sorry you do not consider our great association worthy enough to join. That is your prerogative. But unless social workers support groups that support them the profession will have a harder time battling issues such as raising respect for the profession and raising social work salaries.

      Please feel free to email me if you need to discuss this further or need additional information. And thank you for the wonderful work you do as a social worker and please stay safe during this crisis.

      Greg Wright
      NASW Public Relations Manager
      gwright.nasw@socialworkers.org

      • Good afternoon, Greg Wright – As a professional association, I agree their are limits as to what can be done. However, in this time of social media, why have I seen next to no posts about what social workers are doing on the front lines? I have seen many Doctors posting about their experiences and I have seen nurses also posting. I am fortunate enough not to be forced to put myself on the line, so I personally can not post stories. Dr. Greene-Ford, I am appreciative you posted this and you see the responses you received. Is it possible for the City staff to post this on social media so that the general public gets an understanding of what a vital role social workers play in the health care system? My final thought is that I worked inpatient and I know social workers are intimately involved in discharge planning. Under normal circumstances, this is an almost impossible job. Under these circumstances, I can not even fathom how are social work colleagues are functioning day to day.

        • Good afternoon Mr. Lasker:

          Glad to help you.

          If you look on the front page of this blog you would see we are posting accounts from social workers on the front lines of the pandemic: http://www.socialworkblog.org/advocacy/2020/04/social-workers-on-front-lines-of-coronavirus-pandemic/

          If you followed us on Facebook you would see news articles where social workers and social work experts, including many who are staff or experts from this association, are quoted: https://www.facebook.com/naswsocialworkers/?ref=bookmarks

          If you go to NASW’s Social Work Podcast (which has had almost 400,000 downloads in the past two years) you would hear episodes featuring social workers on the front lines, including a hospital social worker in Chicago and one working with older populations. (The podcast is on the News tab of http://www.socialworkers.org).

          If you go to NASW’s Help Starts Here (www.helpstartshere.org) website you will see advice social work experts are giving the public to remain mentally healthy and cope during this pandemic. This website gets thousands of visitors each month. And some of these experts there are being pitched to the media.

          Remember, due to social media alogorithms not all of our content may appear on your page if you follow us. But you can go directly to our website or social media pages to get all the information.

          We urge social workers to share these news articles and blogs and podcasts on their social media channels and help spread the word.

          Please be safe and thanks for the great work you do as a social worker.

          Greg Wright
          NASW Public Relations Manager

    • You are absolutely agree Lisa!!! NASW will do nothing to advocate for us as usual. They are fighting for profession protection yet nurses can do case management (basically social work ) and make 2 times what we make in a hospital setting . They would never get a dime from me either !!

    • Patient Advocate

      I feel the need to share a story of a Social Worker I know. I also agree, social workers are blatantly disrespected in general, and by their manager and regional vice-president at Fresenius Medical Care for expressing concerns when Social Workers and Dieticians are asked to sell the company pharmacy onto the patients, when it is more expensive in more cases than not, with very questionable customer service. Their answer to a Social Worker listing several aspects of this violating the NASW Code of Ethics: “You work for a for profit company and need to support the company values, projects and initiatives,” said Abbie Morrison, RVP, to a Social Worker (helping poor patients learn options to save money using other pharmacies) who was then walked out the door without being allowed to terminate with patients, but still paid, according to reliable sources. The NASW Ethics Committee told this Social Worker that maybe you should consider not working for them, but basically said that our Code of Ethics means nothing when working with non-Social Workers, leaving us vulnerable to be taken advantage of. This Social Worker had years of service with the company and no disciplinary actions. So yes, I was very disappointed with NASW in this regard when I heard of the experience. We get left out to dry in multidisciplinary settings when we speak up, and makes me think at times that our profession is a joke.

  7. Christopher Hunter

    We need advocacy for our social workers not threats and gag orders. The only thing that will keep us a little safer in these uncertain times is the absolute truth. The truth will allow us to identify and address the issues that need to be confronted head on so we can all work together to get through this time. It is disgusting that anybody would try and silence the voices of our most underappreciated essential workers (Social workers) in a time of crisis. SHAME!!!

  8. Migdalia Vasquez

    I work for a Hhc hospital in New York City and was told that I will be doing clerical work in clinics or wherever with Covid patients. I believe that is discriminatory because I’m a licensed social worker and I suffer from asthma and hypertension both conditions are perfect hosts for this virus. When I went to advocate for myself, I met up with Ms April Alexander, director of HR department, she treated me with contempt. I was made to wait by her all day while she had her meetings. During this time, I suffered the worst panic attack, I cried and shook like a leaf and no one there or herself helped me or offered a glass of water. There was no empathy but instead I received disdain and contempt from her and this is a person who makes decisions about patients, unbelievable. I waited all day just to be told that they could put me to work from the basement and delivering supplies. When I went to meet the person in charge in the basement, he had a conversation with another supervisor on how they were going to use me to clean for them, etc. That would be sheer exploitation. It was devastating to hear this and after the panic attack. I had to be out 2 days just to recuperate and seek mental health services. The individuals in this anecdote, are people of “Color” that forget where they came from. I met with the head of all the nurses, Dr. Brennan who was very empathetic and I appreciate her kindness and she respected my dignity. I thanked her nothing goes unnoticed by me. I go there because without honesty, we could not address these issues. It was extremely devastating what I went and all in one day. ✌️

    • Migdalia,

      Wow! What occurred to you is not right (especially for helping professionals), and it sounds like it was a difficult experience (to say the least). However, I am glad that you had a meeting with all the nurses and the Dr. to advocate for your needs, rights, and safety. Keep on advocating for yourself and your clients/patients!

      -Fellow SW (student)

    • As a SW in a nursing facility, I feel that we must advocate for ourselves at work. If you don’t ask about social distancing, you would remain working 45” away from a co worker. You are expected to go to work as normal & see the COVID19 residents with little noticed. It seems that we must fill in for other departments and continue to work as if it was a regular day. We see so much pain yet there’s no one to provide us with support, we use our peers for support, because there’s no other option.

  9. NASW as a group we need to lobby that insurances need to pay more for session especially Medicaid and Medicare which have the most rule for us to follow. I am an LCSW. it took me 7 years to get a master masters degree, over 4000 intern hours, 3 national tests plus the money to pay for each test, paying for 20 ceus a year, license applications and buy my own supplies to use with clients. I have done this for the past 20 years. The only way to get some of my students loans pay for is work for a non profit. You never know when the grant money will run out so no job security in those jobs, I had one of those jobs. never again! Medicaid pays 62.42 for a 45 minute session in Idaho, plus an audit every year. really do we need the extra stress. just my thoughts

  10. Hello,
    I am wondering if there is a way to help the social workers in need of masks?

    • That is so kind and generous of you, Ann Marie!! Here is the website for the National Association of Social Workers: https://www.socialworkers.org/
      On the website you can find the phone number and locate the local chapter nearest you (usually at the state level). I imagine that your offer would be much appreciated. Bless you!

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