When social workers aren't handling cases, they're often advocating for changes to the policies and laws that affect the American workforce, especially the working poor.
"One part of social work is social action," says Iowa state Sen. Maggie Tinsman (R). "It's most important that social workers get involved in politics."
Fighting Employment Discrimination
Social workers have a long history of helping workers fight discrimination in hiring and on the job.
For example, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) has supported a federal ban on employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Organizations such as Lambda Legal welcome the support of social workers in their advocacy of gay/lesbian rights.
In recent years, the US Supreme Court has progressively narrowed the scope of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a landmark law intended to protect the rights of people with disabilities at work and in other realms. Social workers can help workers with disabilities get and keep jobs by referring clients to resources such as the Employer Assistance and Recruiting Network, which helps match qualified workers with disabilities with employers.
Social Policy and the Working Poor
Social workers can also press for policy change that will help those seeking to gain footing in the working world.
"Social policy issues impact a person's ability to advance in the workplace," says Rufus Lynch, president of the Institute for the Advancement of Working Families. For example, a minimally skilled worker can't move up to driver if he's lost his operator's license because of failure to make child support payments, Lynch says.
"The focus has been on getting a job," says Janlee Wong, executive director of the NASW California chapter in Sacramento. "The NASW has said, 'No, that's not enough. We also need support services like child care and worker training.'"
Enhancing Benefits for the Unemployed
Due to economic factors, many low- and moderate-income workers are unemployed. Social workers can step in to urge federal, state and local governments to provide enhanced unemployment benefits, especially for the long-term jobless.
Interested social workers can get in touch with the National Employment Law Project, which has a history of advocating for expanded unemployment benefits.
Health Coverage for Workers
"The real crisis in healthcare is that it is tied to employment, and there will always be people who are unemployed," says Georgia state Rep. Sally Harrell (D).
Social workers advocate for healthcare reform, including proposals to divorce coverage from employment, through organizations such as the Universal Health Care Action Network.
Social Workers as Politicians
Perhaps the ultimate form of worker advocacy for social workers is to run for elected office. Some with master's degrees in social work take the electoral challenge and win -- Senator Tinsman and Representative Harrell for instance. Could you be next?