MSW students cite unpaid field positions as contributor to financial instability

Thursday, October 26, 2017 - 7:03pm

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Design by Roseanne Chao

 

Despite being ranked first in its field for best graduate programs by the U.S. News & World Report earlier this year, a survey conducted last March by Fair Labor Organizing, a subcommittee of the School of Social Work Student Union, reported 73 percent of 110 Social Work School respondents — more than 25 percent of Social Work students — said they work at least one more job on top of classes and field hours.  

Masters of Social Work students say the discrepancy between being ranked as the best social work program in the country and the large number of students who have to work outside their class schedule is a result of the program’s 912 field placement hours requirement — most of which are often completed through unpaid positions, such as mentorship programs with social workers and public outreach positions.

According to Lisa Raycraft, Social Work School communications and public relations manager, field education positions are a required part of the MSW program. Students complete on average 228 hours of field placement work per term and the School of Social Work’s Office of Field Instruction reports over 550 field sites primarily in Southeast Michigan help MSW students apply their knowledge learned in the classroom to a real position in their field of interest.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Fair Labor Standards Act outlines six requirements an internship “in the ‘for-profit’ private sector” must meet for a position to be unpaid. According to these standards, the requirements include: internship positions reflect an educational environment, no immediate employer advantages from said internship work and the internship does not displace employees in favor of unpaid internship labor. Raycraft said the School of Social Work’s field education requirement meets these six points through the field education’s association with the University, structure around classroom learning, University oversight and credit allocation.

The program also requires agreements between the school, the company and the student to make sure the field education program stays in line with the U.S. standards for unpaid internships.

Raycraft said this field education requirement is different from an internship in that the programs MSW students are placed in reflect their educational interests, not the workforce needs of the employer sponsoring the position.

“An MSW student has an academic agreement and they’re created for each student individually,” Raycraft said. “It’s giving them the opportunity to apply their knowledge that they’re learning in classes and to gain practical skills, so it’s an extension of the classroom. It’s associated with academic programs, not with the employer … that’s the biggest distinction.”

Both the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Social Work School’s requirements for field placement positions reflect Raycraft’s statement that no field education position should take the place of regular, salaried employees. However, this is what Social Work student Erica Watson, School of Social Work Student Union vice president and Fair Labor Organizing is claiming often happens. Watson said though the learning contracts between the MSW student and the employer are sound from the beginning, often these field education positions morph into unpaid labor.

“We know that technically we are not supposed to be replacing regular employees and I think that when the School of Social Work goes to these placements to place us, that’s sort of the agreed upon thing but we hear again and again and again, from students, we’ve heard, ‘After I left my field placement, they hired somebody full-time with a health care package to do the exact same job as me’ or, ‘My supervisor was on maternal leave and I actually had to pick up all of her responsibilities while she was gone,’ ” Watson said.

To discuss methods of how the Social Work School can provide MSW students with more stipends and paid positions that satisfy the field education requirement, Watson and other MSW students created FLO. It became an official organization this past June and was recently made into a subcommittee of the School of Social Work Student Union. FLO’s survey was sent out over the summer on the School of Social Work listserv and from their responses to the survey, FLO has been working on the promotion of paid labor for MSW students.

Working a part-time job and being a student at the University of Michigan is not uncommon, with 52.5 percent of in-state students and 6.3 percent of out-of-state students reporting they pay for everyday expenses like food with a student job, found a survey conducted by The Michigan Daily earlier this year. However, Watson said the program’s 912 field placement hours requirement often results in students working unpaid positions, going to class and having to find outside jobs to pay for rent and food.

Watson cited the University’s Higher Education graduate program, whose required two-term internship program most often includes a paid hourly stipend, as a branch of the University she believes from which the School of Social Work should draw inspiration. She said as the number-one-ranked social work graduate program in the country, paid stipends should be a higher priority.

“We know that, legally, (employers) do not have to pay us,” Watson said. “We think that that is a really low bar and that as the number one school of social work, we should be not just skirting the lowest bar by a hair but rather setting a standard for the field that we should be paying our interns because the work that they do produces value and is worth something other than our experiential learning.”

In July, FLO received over 550 signatures from current MSW students, Social Work alumni and social workers currently in the field for a petition calling for fair compensation for their field experience requirement.

FLO is claiming the lack of paid positions for their field education work violates the National Association of Social Worker’s Code of Ethics, specifically the Code’s advocacy for basic living conditions and economic values found in Article 6 of the document.

The language differences between “internships” and “field education”, according to Raycraft, are crucial in understanding this division between students and administration. Since the field education positions count for credits in an MSW student’s semester, these positions are supposed to be completed in the time that students would be in another class without the required field work. In this case, Raycraft said MSW students are not completing internships and therefore are under different requirements that take into account academic credits when designing schedules for the benefit of the student.

“There is a very clear distinction between an internship and field education and the Council on Social Work Education regularly works with the Department of Labor Regulation to make sure social work field education is legal and aligned,” Raycraft said. “It’s very different than an internship … (field education) is about an academic experience for a student. It’s not about an employer’s actual operations.”

Raycraft also provided data obtained from the School of Social Work, which found that more than 85 percent of current MSW students receive some form of financial aid. The Social Work School also reports more than 300 scholarships are available for MSW students.

Social Work student Kari Nilsen sees field education and internships in the same light and said even with financial aid, non-paying positions that are required to graduate will leave students in very large debt crises after graduation.

“We are graduating with a lot of debt and then the available positions that we have are ranging from $30,000 a year maybe up to $45,000 if you find a good paying job, so that discrepancy in debt and salary coming out of a master’s program is really, really difficult,” Nilsen said.

In the district court case O’Connor v. Davis, Bridget O’Connor, a social work major at Marymount College in New York, was required to complete 200 hours of field work in her senior year. She was placed at Rockland, a mental hospital, for her field work position in 1994 and worked with Dr. James Davis under the supervision of Lisa Punzone, a supervisor at the hospital. O’Connor was continually sexually harassed by Davis, who called her “Miss Sexual Harassment” and constantly discussed sexual topics and made sexual jokes at O’Connor. O’Connor reported these actions to Punzone but Punzone did not tell her supervisor, James Wagner, about the sexual harassment allegations until January 1995, and Wagner also took no action.

O’Connor took her case to district court and accused Rockland and New York state of sexual harassment in violation of Title VII Employment Practices. The district court eventually sided with Rockland and New York state, claiming O’Connor was not within the boundaries of Title VII because she was not an employee, but rather completing a field work internship.

In 1997, the U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed the decision of the district court and set precedent for interns not being considered employees of the firm they are working with.

Social Work student Shelby Andersen-Holt said this court case takes rights from interns, who she says are often completing the same tasks as an employee, without having to pay them. She sees the Social Work School requirement as an internship program and said the number of available positions is being prioritized over asking existing field education positions to pay students for their work, despite the surface description of these positions as a purely educational experience.

“The Field Office is under this huge amount of pressure to find placements for students and a lot of times, what we’ve found and what we’ve heard from other students … the Field Office will prioritize maintaining relationships with placements over the well-being of the individual student because if they lose any of these placements, they are at risk of not being able to make it possible to meet the requirement,” Andersen-Holt said.

Raycraft said the positions aren’t inherently paid because they directly benefit the student’s education and not the employer’s workforce goals. She said these positions take credits out of a student’s course load so they act as a class and an educational experience, something one would never be paid for normally.

“There are internships where you go do it at an accounting firm and you’re there to support that accounting firm’s goals and objectives and to meet some of their objectives where ours (are) academically based,” Raycraft said. “It’s based on the student’s needs, not on the employer’s needs.”

FLO’s survey from March also addresses MSW students’ mental health in response to the large amounts of stress associated with classes, field education positions and additional jobs. Their survey found only one out of the 110 respondents of the survey rated their mental health as a five out of five. It also found about 40 percent of respondents said financial stability is directly related to their mental health.

Watson said if social workers have to wear themselves thin and possibly not make rent in order to help others, the program needs more funds to make sure this doesn’t occur.

“People really like to think about social work as something we do because we care and that’s great,” Watson said. “We all do care. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t care, but there’s no reason that caring and making a living wage where we ourselves don’t have to live in poverty to help others in poverty doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive.”