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  • Writer's pictureJeffrey Reynolds

It Shouldn’t Be So Hard To Be a Social Worker On Long Island

Right now one in ten of Long Islanders, or about 150,000 of our neighbors are hard at work at our region’s nonprofit organizations – hospitals, clinics, community-based agencies and faith-based groups.

They’re comforting a young family that’s been blindsided by a cancer diagnosis or strategizing with a widowed grandmother trying desperately to stay in her home. They’re staring down MS13 recruiters as they escort kids safely into middle school and opening a door to the 13- year-old who ran away from an abusive home last night. They’re teaching recently arrived immigrants to speak English and helping them get their toddlers enrolled in school.  They’re running standing-room only bereavement support groups for a growing cadre of parents who have lost kids to heroin overdoses. They’re distributing food, clothing and most of all – hope – as they do what we usually call, “gods work.”

They, like the staff, volunteers and board members at hundreds of nonprofits across our region, don’t do it for the money, the glamour or the perks. They do it because they likely experienced a time in their lives when they, or someone close to them needed a helping hand. They do it because they want to help make Long Island healthier and safer.

But virtually everyone working in the non-profit sector will tell you that it’s getting harder to continue. Not because the cases are more complex, the issues more challenging and the hours longer.

It’s because even after making incredible sacrifices for their own families, slashing household budgets, eliminating vacations and getting a second job, they still can’t make ends meet. They can’t buy homes, repair their aging vehicles, save for retirement or provide for their ownkids.

The Economic Policy Institute estimates that a two-parent family with two kids needs a combined income of $139,545 per year to live comfortably on Long Island, far more than the $50,000 we typically offer Master’s-prepared social workers.

Factor in an average of $60,000 in student loan debt and it’s easy to understand why the nonprofit sector is losing incredibly talented health and human service professionals and why the best accountants, IT professionals and administrators often look elsewhere.

Substandard wages and a loss of talent is bad for local non-profits who are all seeing higher staff turnover, bigger recruitment and training costs, and program instability, but it’s also bad for our regional economy. Ensuring that our human services workforce earns a livable wage needs to be part of Long Island’s and New York’s economic development plan.

That’s why state lawmakers should support a CPI-based 2.9 percent cost-of-living adjustment in the 2019-2020 state budget. While recent state budgets have prioritized significant infrastructure investments in new roads, bridges, train stations and airports, eight of the last ten state budgets haven’t contained any across-the-board increases for state-contracted counselors, social workers, care managers, clinicians, nurses, therapists and other direct care staff.

These dedicated human service professionals are the scaffolding around those with physical and developmental disabilities, mental illness, survivors of domestic violence and sex crimes, the poor, the elderly, the addicted, and children who’ve been abused, neglected and orphaned. It’s time we invested in them.

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