It’s late August, and I’m beginning to think about the inevitable return to graduate school and about my future working in social services. A clunky transition from finals to working full time as an on-call employee left me frazzled and in need of a creative way to retain my sanity. The things we do to pay the bills and maintain housing, am I right?
I’m surprised that I’ve lasted nearly a decade in this industry so far. The nebulous nature of employment prospects, as a soon-to-be graduate, keeps me in perpetual “semi-retirement” as an on-call worker. A full break will have to wait.
Like many others who entered the job market in the late 2000s, the Great Recession influenced my professional trajectory. My first stint in social services, at a Beacon Hill-based nonprofit, was a rough introduction. Poor on-the-job training, gaslighting from managers and subsequent dismissal made me doubt my abilities.
In my next job, I flew under the radar and dedicated myself to building work history. After reaching my personal benchmarks, it became evident that without an advanced degree, the possibility of advancement, or transition to other meaningful work, would be truncated at best.
I realized later that I was not unique. My experience is common in the social-services field and is often what drives high turnover in the industry. It is a reflection of the tectonic economic shift that orginated three decades ago changing social services from state agencies into private-sector organizations. The resulting privatization of services, in turn, promoted the erosion of publicly funded social safety nets.
Likewise, the conditions and lack of support for workers who do direct service also impact the quality of care that is provided. A revolving door of undercompensated social service workers, lead to lapses in proper community services. You can rely only so much on self-care regimens for retaining skilled professionals without acknowledging the need for structural change.
Nonprofits have a tendency toward taking advantage of workers’ eagerness to engage in community action. In the process, workers are guilt-tripped into making do with lower wages, reinforcing the same apparatus that thrives on siphoning resources away from marginalized communities and into the overflowing coffers of billion-dollar corporations that benefit from regressive taxing structures.
It is abundantly clear that our current economic system is not meeting the needs of our most vulnerable community members. We won’t reach this goal if folks at the frontlines experience continued burnout and dissatisfaction. Collectively bargaining for better pay and work conditions is a start. Piece by piece, brick by brick, this may be achieved with collective action from organized social service workers.
Martyrdom is not a sustainable practice for combatting social inequality.
Oscar Rosales grew up in the Yakima Valley and is a Master of Social Work student at the University of Washington. He has previously contributed to HistoryLink.org and the Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project.
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