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Social workers go virtual, leaving nonprofits shorthanded across New York

  • / Updated:
  • Edwin Viera 

Nonprofit social workers in New York are seeing a shortage of people coming into the field, abdicating it for telehealth work.

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth began to fill the gaps for in-person visits. However, the shift to a semi-virtual landscape has left some nonprofits without applicants to fill open positions. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, telehealth visits increased by 154% in 2020.

Angela Piccininni, associate director of clinical services at YES Community Counseling Center, is concerned about the kind of hands-on experience new social workers are getting.

“Prior to COVID, they would have internships in nonprofits and agency-based work at hospitals, similar to ours, which would lead to an exposure of the real missions of social work,” Piccininni recounted. “And after training, we would begin to employ these new graduates.”

One way she feels people could be drawn to in-person work is a re-evaluation of nonprofit- and agency-based social work, with hopes of incentivizing employees. Although it has become widely used, she said it could be a mismatch for people with more severe mental-health problems.

Finger Lakes Partners (Billboard)

Telehealth marks a turning point for how people receive mental-health treatment, and it could be here to stay. According to a 2021 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, many clients saw a reduction in their symptoms of mental illnesses when they used telehealth, or a hybrid model.

Piccininni thinks the approach can be limiting, adding there are some things a person might not be able to notice on a computer screen.

“Much of what we do as therapists is observing, and working through nonverbal communication,” Piccininni noted. “You cannot detect that when you’re seeing someone’s head or their shoulders. We’re often finding individuals coming to session, that are in virtual treatment, that are in their car, that are driving or in public settings.”

Social work may be shifting into a virtual environment, but it is not slowing down the growth of the field. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of social workers is expected to grow by 9% nationally during the next decade. New York is expected to see a 6.6% growth in social workers over the same period.