Opinion: Social work students are required to work thousands of hours for free. We demand change.


Metz is a graduate student in social work and public health at San Diego State University and the Advocacy and Outreach Coordinator for the SDSU P4P Chapter, and lives in University City. Fox is a graduate student in social work at SDSU and the communications coordinator for the P4P chapter at SDSU, and lives in Ocean Beach. P4P is a national movement of social work students calling for paid internships in the field.

Each year, hundreds of social work students enter the front lines of San Diego County’s mental health crisis, providing vital services to the area’s most vulnerable residents in schools, prisons, hospitals and outpatient facilities and on our streets. We provide direct therapy and case management for children, youth and adults with serious mental illnesses and substance use disorders. We counsel family members with loved ones in hospice, connect homeless community members to resources, and much more. This army of unpaid workers is filling the gaps in the social service sector at our own expense. This is not a sustainable or ethical approach to meeting the needs of our community.

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The Council of Social Work Education requires students to undergo what it calls on-the-job training. To graduate, undergraduate students must complete a minimum of 400 hours – and master’s students must complete a minimum of 900 hours of fieldwork. In many schools, the requirement is even higher. At San Diego State University, for example, students must complete 480 and 1,050 hours, respectively. This field work is mostly unpaid and essentially amounts to an “unpaid internship”.

Economists have a saying that there is no free lunch. Similarly, there is no unpaid internship. “Unpaid” internships are funded by our student loans and savings accounts. By providing over 1,000 hours of free work, social work students are asked to donate $16,000 to the organizations we work for, putting us and our families in debt. If we were paid California’s minimum wage—$15 an hour—a master’s student in social work who does 1,050 hours of field work would earn $15,750. Of course, we believe our time and skills are worth more than $15 an hour.

This wage theft is allowed simply because we are students and this work is called an “educational experience”. The label “student” obscures the reality of the typical social work student. Many of us come from the same communities we aim to serve, have children and families to support, and have years, if not decades, of valuable work experience. But because we choose to continue our studies, we lose the fundamental right to be paid for our work.

Working without pay, social work students fund dozens of local nonprofits, government agencies, and health care organizations. It is absurd to rely on students to pay the cost of budget deficits, especially at a time when the cost of living and housing is rising exponentially in one of the most expensive parts of the country.

According to the Steinberg Institute, only a third of Californians are getting the mental health care they need due to a lack of providers — and that shortage is expected to grow. A recent Washington Post article noted that the high turnover of social workers is causing a massive labor shortage nationwide. It’s no wonder we face a shortage of behavioral health workers. The financial and psychological burden of working in understaffed, underfunded and stressful environments without pay for months must be taken seriously as playing a part in this crisis.

We propose the following immediate actions to ensure that students of social work are compensated fairly for our work:

San Diego County should show leadership and commit to paying its social work interns a living wage.

San Diego County should require all student social work interns working for county contractors to be paid a living wage.

Agencies hosting social work students should critically assess their values ​​and budgets, and determine whether the use of unpaid labor to subsidize their budgets is consistent with their ethical standards. Agencies that can afford to pay should do so immediately.

The Biden administration should reverse a Trump-era rule that made it easier to classify workers as unpaid interns and close the loophole exempting nonprofits and government organizations from the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Social work programs should prioritize placing students in paid internships, be transparent with students about whether and how much each internship pays, and set the bar high for internships that insist on not paying their interns. If agencies demonstrate non-compliance with Department of Labor regulations, schools must hold them accountable by suspending internships at this site.

The social work code of ethics calls for the promotion of social, racial and economic justice. Like everyone else, social work students deserve to be valued. We deserve dignity and we deserve compensation.

This essay is in the print edition of The San Diego Union-Tribune on March 22, 2022, with the title, Social work students need help

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