Social workers need to be treated fairly

OUTREACH: Frank Muna, a Yona resident, speaks to volunteer and social worker Lovelle Castro during the Point-in-Time homeless count in February 2020. Muna explained that he plants vegetables and sells his produce to a store in Hagåtña. John O'Connor/The Guam Daily Post 

What is fair to some isn't so for others.

It is a matter of perspective, they say.

This can be true in the argument over whether our social workers are being given a fair shake when it comes to workload and economic reward for what could arguably be as much a labor of love as it is a paycheck to take home every two weeks.

We're talking about social workers whose work can be time-consuming and emotionally taxing, yet impactful in improving the lives of neglected and abused children and people with disabilities.

We're talking about GovGuam social workers who absorb the heartache and emotional trauma and then become the empathetic human presence for children who are not cared for by the grownups in their lives and for people with disabilities who need advocacy and services as they age out of the public school system and grow up to be adults – only to find themselves struggling to become employed.

The Department of Integrated Services for Individuals with Disabilities saw a tremendous increase in the number of individuals seeking services over the last 18 months as COVID-19 changed life for all of us Guamanians, with restrictions on movement, safety precautions and massive job losses. 

Clients, in addition to seeking housing services due to reduced income, need a web of services, especially caregiving services and financial assistance for daily living, Michelle Perez, deputy director of DISID, told The Guam Daily Post in late September.

The number of new DISID clients had ranged from seven per month to as many as 42 in one month, Perez said. 

With this workload, the three social workers at DISID have been handling about 150 client cases each. The strain will be felt further with one of the social workers going on extended leave.

DISID is in critical need of social workers, community program aides and program coordinators, Perez said Wednesday during a legislative oversight hearing on the agency. 

To correct the imbalance, DISID needs an additional three to four social workers, at a minimum, according to DISID.

The ideal staffing to meet the needs for DISID services would be a total of nine to 10 social workers, Perez said.

Many Guamanians, during this COVID-19 pandemic, now stretching on for nearly 19 months, are feeling a range of emotions from cabin fever to fears over the faster-spreading, hard-hitting delta variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 and fear of joblessness, not to mention empathy for the families of more than 200 people on Guam whose deaths were attributed to COVID-19.

In the months to come, as households feel the pressure of not finding jobs or struggling in jobs that don't pay enough to meet the rising cost of necessities, including food, utilities and gasoline, there could be more cases of children being neglected and people with disabilities seeking help outside of the home.

There's hasn't been as dire a need in recent memory for more social workers, and to address the needs of those on the front lines of social work on Guam.

GovGuam doesn't have the luxury of time to drag its feet on this staffing imbalance and threat of burnout.

Social workers need to be treated better in the workplace because they advocate for many others, but rarely for themselves.

The reality for Guam is that social workers and others who have highly movable skills can just decide to take their skills where they feel appreciated and rewarded with fair pay that comes with a reasonable workload.

A DISID social worker's pay ranges from $43,050 to $47,846 per year. Some agencies, such as the Department of Corrections, pay social workers better. At DOC, some social workers make more than $50,000 a year in base pay, and a social worker with administrative abilities makes close to $73,000.

In 2020, the national median annual wage for social workers reached $50,470, and ranged from $31,750 for the lowest-paid 10% to $82,540 for the top 10% in the field, according to data from socialworkguide.org.

For the Guam social workers with a wealth of experience, the decision to move from DISID or from Guam, in general, could be easy.

But for some, Guam is home, and leaving would not be worth considering if they are given a fair deal in the workplace. 

Social workers are a "hot commodity," Perez acknowledged.

They're sought after in the public and private sectors – including stateside. 

When social workers and other skilled workers leave our island, it's a loss to the community in general.

The Guam brain drain has been happening, but we could see this escalate for people whose skills are valued and rewarded better elsewhere.

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