Social workers can perform a myriad of tasks. Some check on children in abusive homes and some train foster families. Others support patients through medical procedures like kidney dialysis or provide talk therapy to mental health patients.
But there are too few of them in Kansas.
An array of health care providers, state agencies and nonprofit organizations that employ social workers say low pay and emotionally challenging work make it hard to hire and retain qualified social workers — especially in the wake of years of declining state funding.
Advocates say Kansas’ uncommonly high standards make the problem worse. The state has stringent requirements for granting the most advanced social work certification and for allowing people certified elsewhere to practice in Kansas.
Now lawmakers are considering a bill that would lower those standards, bringing them closer to requirements in most other states.
“Currently there’s a chronic (worker) shortage,” said Becky Fast, executive director of the Kansas chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, “in rural medical care, in mental health and in child welfare.”
Currently, Kansas requires aspiring licensed clinical social workers to pay for 4,000 hours of supervised experience with clients and 150 hours of direct contact with a supervisor. Most other states require between 3,000 and 4,000 hours of client experience and less than 110 hours of supervisor contact.
The state also requires social workers, counselors and other professionals who were licensed outside of Kansas to have worked at least 60 out of the last 66 months before applying for a license in Kansas.
A bill pending in the Legislature would reduce those requirements, instead asking for 48 months of work experience out of the preceding 54 months. It would also reduce the work requirement for licensed clinical social workers from 4,000 to 3,000 hours.
The state Senate approved the bill unanimously last month. It now awaits a vote from the House of Representatives.
Advocates and employers say the reductions would motivate more social workers to seek jobs or clinical certification in Kansas and would make it easier for nonprofits, state agencies and health care providers to recruit.
Laura Howard, the newly appointed secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families, has said she wants to make hiring social workers a priority for the department. She said on KCUR’s Up to Date that her agency has been able to fill more vacancies since Gov. Laura Kelly came into office, and that recent interns have expressed interest in staying with the department.
“This is the hardest work that someone can do,” Howard said in the interview. “We have some aggressive recruitment campaigns with the schools of social work across the state.”
But Kansas employers often lose out to neighboring states with lower standards for clinical social worker certification, said Fast. One reason: the cost of paying a clinician to oversee training time, which can be as much as $70 an hour.
“Most social workers now have to pay for that clinical supervision because agencies can’t afford to lose that billable time,” Fast told lawmakers. “You’re paying several thousand dollars. Many just give up and say, ‘I’m going to move to Missouri.’”
Fast told legislators that it took her two years to get her clinical license in Missouri, while her colleagues working in Kansas needed three or four years to complete the required hours.
She called the requirements “a primary barrier” to recruiting social workers from nearby states.
In an interview, Fast said she doesn’t have an exact number for open social work positions in Kansas, but she said employers routinely send her job postings and tell her that they have trouble hiring workers. The impending retirement of Baby Boomer social workers and the mobility of the millennial workforce have made things worse.
“There’s a real generational shift right now,” she said. “Today’s young professionals want to live in many states and want to move across state lines. And how do you meet that changing workforce need?”
Fast said the shortage of licensed clinical social workers has a particular impact in rural western Kansas, where patients rely heavily on Medicare. Among the variety of social work and counseling positions, only clinical social workers and psychologists can bill Medicare.
There are only 79 licensed clinical social workers in the western half of the state, Fast said. “It is at (a) crisis point in rural areas of Kansas.”
Christie Appelhanz, executive director of the Children’s Alliance for Kansas, said in an interview that the shortage reduces social workers’ ability to manage their caseloads and help their clients.
“It's really about fulfilling the needs that each individual has on a day-to-day basis,” she said. “Social workers are definitely feeling the stress.”
Nomin Ujiyediin is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @NominUJ.
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