Santa Clara County Social Worker Reclassification: Fight for Title Protection!

It's no secret that I am a huge proponent of social worker title protection. As I've mentioned on this blog in past posts, I strongly believe that lack of national title protection is why social workers are underpaid, because this allows non-social workers to take social worker jobs and hence depress our wages.  Never mind the potential for disaster when you have non-social workers attempting to perform social work tasks.

Hence, I was infuriated when I received an e-mail informing me that a local Bay Area county is considering reclassifying social worker jobs to allow for individuals with masters degrees in counseling, psychology, and gerontology. Last I checked, an individual needed a nursing degree to be called a "nurse", and a law degree to be called a "lawyer". For me, it makes absolutely no sense that someone without a social work degree can be called a "social worker".

Hours later, I had penned a letter which has since been e-mailed to Santa Clara County's Board of Supervisors. Below is an except from that letter.
I am writing to you today to express concern regarding the revision of job specifications for Social Worker II and Social Worker III positions as proposed by the Santa Clara County's Employee Services Agency.

In the hospital setting, we have rules and regulations in place so that various disciplines do not function outside their respective scope of practice. Therefore, when a nurse is treating a patient, the patient can safely assume that whoever is treating them is a nurse with a nursing degree. To allow someone to call themselves a nurse without the requisite education is dangerous and potentially deadly. The same goes for physicians, pharmacists, physical therapists, nutritionists, and social workers.

To become an MSW, one must go through a rigorous program that involves extensive field training and specialized coursework in social theory, policy, advocacy, ethics, research, and evidenced-based practice methods. Social work is unique because it is a profession founded on the principles of social justice and the idea of systems theory/"person in environment", which looks at how an individual is shaped by factors such as community, culture, government policies, and socioeconomics. While other professions choose to focus on what is ailing an individual, social workers employ a multidisciplinary strengths-focused approach to empower individuals to overcome whatever obstacles they face in their lives. Social workers take pride in their title and do not appreciate it when those without the requisite education refer to themselves as “social workers”. While California currently does not have social worker title protection laws in place, such legislation is actively being pursued by the California branch of the National Association of Social Workers.

At work, I am most frequently called to de-escalate and resolve situations the rest of the hospital staff cannot handle. This is due to my ability to see a patient as a person instead of a medical diagnosis that must be treated. In my short career as a medical social worker, I’ve witnessed all too often patients unfairly misunderstood, stigmatized, and brushed aside due to their situations (i.e. poverty, mental illness, history of drug use, etc.). What’s heartbreaking is that the culprits are medical professionals who believe they can replace a social worker through applied medicine and psychology. This reinforces my belief that we not only need more properly educated social workers to serve as patient advocates, but more public education on the roles and capabilities of a social worker. There is much more to social work than diagnostics, therapy, and the "baby snatcher" stereotype.

To consider non-social work degree holders for the title of "social worker" is an insult to the thousands of individuals who possess graduate degrees and passed rigorous licensure exams.  From a financial standpoint, the money spent on training sessions for non-social workers to get them on par with social workers can be better spent on recruiting and retaining qualified social workers.  Furthermore, such action is unethical and deceptive to the Santa Clara County residents, as you are allowing these individuals to receive services and interventions from a “social worker” who does not have a social worker graduate degree. I’m sure people would similarly be angered if they received services from “nurses” or “doctors” without respective nursing and medical degrees.

Ultimately, this proposal is detrimental to the community, costly to the County of Santa Clara, and diminishes the social work profession’s ability to help those in need. Therefore, I urge you to reconsider this proposal. Furthermore, I encourage you to reach out to groups such as the National Association of Social Workers and San Jose State’s School of Social Work to learn more about the social work profession, establish rapport, and potentially come up with a resolution that works for everyone. Unlike other counties and states who employ non-social workers, Santa Clara County is special because it recognizes the value of the social work profession in serving one of the nation’s most diverse populations. Please do not take a step backwards for the sake of filling vacant slots.
As social workers, we know that we have unique and specialized skills that set us apart from other professions. Hence, for the sake of the people we help, we cannot allow a government institution to steal our title and give it to someone else. If you care about the social work profession, I ask you to help us and reach out to Santa Clara County's Board of Supervisors and fight for title protection. How can we help others when we cannot advocate for ourselves?


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