Social work pay too low, officials say Maryland has trouble recruiting, keeping qualified employees

6 percent raises proposed

Pikesville girl's death provided a reminder of duties' importance

October 05, 1998|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Concerned that low pay is making it hard to recruit and keep qualified social workers, state officials are calling for raises of at least 6 percent starting next year and elimination of often-untrained contractual workers.

Those proposals -- expected to cost about $7.5 million next year -- come after the death last year of Rita Denise Fisher, a Pikesville 9-year-old who died after weeks of abuse and neglect at her home, though Baltimore County social workers had been assigned to the family.

Officials say better pay is crucial to retaining social workers, who in their high-stress jobs are responsible for protecting vulnerable children, the elderly and the poor.

Social workers "have been appallingly, badly paid, and morale has been very low -- and if something goes wrong, they're the whipping boy," said Moya Atkinson, executive director of the 4,300-member Maryland Association of Social Workers.

The recommendations released last week are from a study ordered by the General Assembly, after years of complaints from the social work advocates about state budget cuts, lagging salaries and increasing use of contract help to fill gaps. Those complaints accelerated in the wake of the Fisher case.

The study found that salaries for Maryland social workers are lower on average than in any neighboring state except West Virginia. In Baltimore County, for example, a new social worker with a master's degree starts at a lower salary than a police officer with a high school education or a teacher.

The state Department of Social Services has found it increasingly difficult to hire licensed social workers in recent years, the study found, while suffering a high turnover rate.

Social work students in Maryland often avoid public agency jobs, partly because of low pay, the study says.

"It's a big issue among the students," said Camille Wheeler, a professor at University of Maryland School of Social Work, who was director of Baltimore County's Department of Social Services for 19 years. "It has to do with the notion that you really do need qualified people in these complicated cases."

To remedy that, the study recommends adding up to $5,000 a year to the pay scales of state social workers.

A new social worker with a master's degree would get $28,172 under the plan, up from $24,524 a year, according to Harry Bosk, spokesman for the state Department of Human Resources.

Legislation introduced last year by Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore-Baltimore County Democrat, required the study. Her legislation requires that caseworkers hired after Jan. 1 complete a 40-hour training program and pass a competency test, and that all be completed by the end of next year.

The changes have drawn support from politicians and the social work community.

"You don't take the most vulnerable people and give them the least-trained work force. It's critically important," said state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore-Baltimore County Democrat and chairwoman of the powerful Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

She noted that the recommendations don't require legislation to take effect -- only the support of the governor.

Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger -- who said he kept news clippings of the Fisher murder on his refrigerator last year -- agreed that the salary issue should be addressed.

"We're dealing in a very sensitive area involving the health and welfare of people," he said. He noted that private agencies -- and counties that supplement the pay of their state-funded social workers -- pay more than Baltimore County.

Barbara Gradet, director of Baltimore County Department of Social Services, praised the recommendations.

"We are very encouraged that these positions -- which are really public-safety positions -- are being recognized as critical in protecting children," said Gradet, adding that low pay hampered efforts to hire temporary workers after the Fisher case.

If adopted, the recommendations are sure to receive a warm reception among social workers in the system.

"Being able to eat regularly scheduled lunches would be good," said Richard Reap, 54, who began working in June as a protective services worker in Baltimore County.

Under the state plan, his pay would rise from about $32,000 to nearly $37,000, he said. Many of his colleagues, he noted, work second jobs to make ends meet.

Still, many front-line workers are taking a "believe-it-when-they-see-it" attitude about the recommendation.

" I'm used to being patient," Reap said.

Pub Date: 10/05/98

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