Thinking about salary
by Dr. Danna Bodenheimer, LCSW, author of Real World Clinical Social Work: Find Your Voice and Find Your Way
To me, salary is a social work issue. The fact that many of us graduate making less than we were making before graduate school is a travesty. Wrapping up classes in May invariably results in dialogue, panic, and questions around salary. These are some of the most important conversations that we can have with each other. Further, the more transparently we discuss salary and financial stress, the more we can shift away from the paradigm that suggests that social workers ought not make decent money.
Many students and rising graduates ask me what is a fair salary to expect. This is the wrong question. The first question we need to ask ourselves is: how much do we need to live on? This is not a simple question, and it requires some significant research into our own lives. Instead of saying, I want a salary of around 40K, we need to say the number that represents our actual living expenses. Our living expenses ought to cover necessities, pleasures, and savings. I am not saying this to sound unrealistic. I am saying this because we need to be clear about our needs.
As social workers, we have an inherent tendency to underestimate our own financial needs. This is a huge mistake. Once you agree to a salary, you agree to a way of life for at least a year, with only incremental change to follow. Our problematic solution to this problem is to add jobs, hours, and stress to our lives, rather than better assessing our needs at the outset of salary negotiations. I have seen people estimate their living expenses negating their awareness for the need for food, let alone the life sustaining need for self-care.
So, start with an honest and - hopefully - overestimated budget of your life. You can be aspirational. You can be honest. But please don’t downplay the need to live with some air to breathe. Then go to an online salary calculator and put in the number. Put in the number of what you need to take home, not what your salary offer says. If you want to make 40K in Pennsylvania, that means you will be netting $21,654 with no dependents. That is $1,804 per month. Student loans will take up a lot of that. So will rent, food, parking, gas. So is 40K enough? I don’t know. The answer depends on the facts of your life. It should not depend on the facts of an individual agency. There are a million salary calculators online. I like this one: http://www.adp.com/tools-and-resources/calculators-and-tools/payroll-calculators/salary-paycheck-calculator.aspx.
When you get an offer, you must counter it with the actual number you have determined that you need to live on. If there is a discrepancy between what the agency then comes back with, ask what it would take and how long until you will reach your number. This isn’t strategy - there is nothing to be shy about. This is the amount of money it takes to finance your life, and you need to be able to talk openly and honestly about that with people who offer you a job. You should offer total transparency, and you should expect the same in return. You are not asking for much. I know this, because you are a social worker. And if you were asking for “much,” that wouldn’t be the worst thing. You are about to do the hardest work of your life, and you should be remunerated for it.
Here are some questions to ask when you are talking salary:
- Is my position grant-funded? If so, how much of the grant is going to salary? How is that determined? Was it by the grantee or the agency? What is the length of the grant? What happens when the grant is no longer funded?
- How was my salary determined? Is it according to level of education or licensure? How can I expect my salary to grow in the next five years?
- Is there anything that I can do at the agency that would enhance the amount of money the agency makes and therefore increase my salary?
- Would it be possible for me to have flexible hours, so I can complement my salary with other work?
- Because my salary does not cover my student loans, does this agency have a student loan forgiveness program? Is this an agency that the government considers qualifying for student loan forgiveness?
- In addition to my salary, would it be possible for you to cover my supervision that would help me achieve the next level of licensure? (This is typically a tax deduction for agencies. It is not hard for them to offer you this.)
- Can I have a clear sense of what advancement looks like at this agency? What potential can I realistically achieve working here?
Of course, these are some broad questions. But they are also questions that demonstrate your knowledge of how agencies work, how salaries are determined, and of your intentions for securing your future.
I once had a supervisee who was in a grant-funded position but didn’t understand the nuances of this reality. At the end of the grant year, the grant needed to be used fully and she was required to organize an “event” for her clients. The event cost around $4,000. Could this money have been better spent on her salary? I have no idea. I know it would have helped her life. I also know that it is okay to ask about numbers, to learn about numbers, and to talk openly about these things. Needing a salary is not something to be ashamed of. And, being agreeable about whatever you are offered is not an act of good will; it is an act of complicity.
Oftentimes, salaries are determined by a sensation about what a social worker “should” get paid, based on local standards and expectations. It is through an activism that is structured by a self awareness of our professional worth that these local standards can change. These standards are based on a false folklore about an expected martyrdom by our field. They keep us painfully stuck and disempowered. This harms us, and it harms our clients. Asking for more is the only way forward.
Danna R. Bodenheimer, LCSW, is in private practice at Walnut Psychotherapy Center in Philadelphia, PA, and teaches at Bryn Mawr College Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research. She provides more of her clinical perspective and tips for developing clinicians in her book, Real World Clinical Social Work: Find Your Voice and Find Your Way.