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Oklahoma social workers face barriers in getting licensed, a bill could help them get to work faster

The Oklahoma State Board of Licensed Social Workers office.
Jillian Taylor
StateImpact Oklahoma
The Oklahoma State Board of Licensed Social Workers office.

Katelyn Andres is a graduate of OU’s master social work program. She’s balancing being a single mom and working full-time toward her license as a clinical social worker who can diagnose mental health conditions and provide therapy and case management.

Her 36-hour work weeks include meeting with parents whose children have been removed from their custody because of substance use. She’s been working under supervision for nine months as a therapeutic counselor and is passionate about helping Oklahomans become sober.

She fits the rest of her life into her day off, which includes meeting with her supervisor, serving on boards and caring for her two children.

“I squeeze it all into Fridays,” Andres said.

Andres already has around 1,000 hours of practicum experience under her belt working as a social worker, which she got during her master's program. She also passed the licensing exam master's students must take and pay for to pursue other licenses.

But Andres and the hundreds of social workers like her pursuing a license in Oklahoma must get an additional 4,000 hours of practical experience. Then, they can take another test and get their license if they pass — all while being paid less than licensed professionals doing the same jobs.

“It's really hard to choose your passion when you can get paid $40,000 more a year,” Andres said. “Those are really tough choices that I think a lot of social workers find themselves in is ‘Can I afford to stay on this route making less money?’”

That choice is more difficult in Oklahoma, where hour requirements far exceed the national average of 3,000 supervised practice hours. Oklahoma’s estimated 6,000 licensed social workers are only meeting about two-thirds of the state's mental health needs.

This legislative session, lawmakers are working with faculty from OU’s School of Social Work and Oklahoma Healthy Minds Policy Initiative, advocating for Oklahoma’s requirements to be reduced to 3,000 hours.

Where does the 4,000-hour requirement come from?

The University of Oklahoma's Anne and Henry Zarrow School of Social Work, located on its Norman campus. OU has one of two accredited master's programs for social workers in the state, with the other being Northeastern State University.
OU School of Social Works' Facebook
The University of Oklahoma's Anne and Henry Zarrow School of Social Work, located on its Norman campus. OU has one of two accredited master's programs for social workers in the state, with the other being Northeastern State University.

Last year, the interim director for the University of Oklahoma School of Social Work David McLeod began researching what could be done to understand and fix the gap in these professionals.

The hour requirement for a license in Oklahoma breaks down to 3,000 spent directly with clients and 100 spent with a licensed supervisor. The rest goes toward regular work hours. Oklahoma is also one of the only states in the U.S. requiring 3,000 hours of direct client contact.

McLeod said he wanted to know the reasoning behind these requirements.

“When I look at something like a 4,000-hour requirement, I'm like, ‘OK, cool. Where does that come from?’” McLeod said.

McLeod and his research assistant searched through OU’s research databases and the open web, and he said what they found was “compelling, if not scary.” The standard of 3,000 hours was set a century ago, and there’s little accessible research to show that number is anything other than arbitrary.

“We've developed that habit and a standard practice that we believe to be protecting the community based on literally just something somebody said 100 years ago, and we've kind of accepted that as normal without measuring it,” McLeod said.

Having a licensing board like the Oklahoma State Board of Licensed Social Workers is important to ensuring competence, McLeod said, and he wants to be on the same page with the board. But he said it is hard to rest the state's choices on a requirement made without data to back it up.

“If … we have a severe workforce shortage, and we know that if we can reduce this time between graduation and full licensure, then why not?” McLeod said.

A policy could reduce supervision hours

McLeod connected with Oklahoma Healthy Minds Policy Initiative, which has been studying the state’s behavioral health workforce. Its Director of Policy Research and Engagement Brittany Hayes said they’re advocating for 3,000 hours with the hope of attracting more social workers to Oklahoma.

“People that you want to be social workers like single moms need a little bit more flexibility, and having an hour requirement that is more flexible, but also more in line with national standards, attracts those professionals to seek education in Oklahoma and be able to stay in Oklahoma,” Hayes said.

 Rep. Jeff Boatman (R-Tulsa)
Oklahoma House of Representatives
Rep. Jeff Boatman (R-Tulsa)

McLeod and Healthy Minds met with the Legislatures’ Mental Health Caucus to present their findings. Caucus chair and Rep. Jeff Boatman (R-Tulsa) authored House Bill 3015, which would lower the hour requirement for licensed social workers, licensed clinical social workers and licensed social workers with administration specialty to 3,000.

“The truth is, our social workers are overworked. They're desperate for help. There's not nearly enough of them, and they recognize that,” Boatman said.

The Oklahoma State Board of Licensed Social Workers Executive Director Whitney Kenedy told StateImpact it’s still working on its response to the bill, which already passed the full House. McLeod will meet with the board later this month to discuss their findings.

Boatman said he’s spoken with the board, and its main concern is jeopardizing the quality of social workers in Oklahoma.

But Kirby Cannon, a program coordinator for OU’s online master of social work program, said these high-hour requirements can begin to feel discouraging for professionals who’ve already obtained extensive experience.

As a licensed clinical social worker who works as a board-approved supervisor, Cannon knows what licensed social work candidates are going through. She was approved for around 35 clinical hours a week for her 40-hour work week under supervision. She reached her clinical hours well before completing her work hours.

“At the time of my 3000 clinical hours, my supervisor and I both felt like I was at a place where I could practice independently, and we were just meeting to satisfy that requirement,” Cannon said. “I have also felt that with my supervisees.”

Social workers also pay supervisors for their weekly meetings, which Cannon said costs around $75. That’s about $7,500 for their 100 hours, and some supervisors ask for more.

McLeod said this creates an equity issue for those who enter the social work field, which is more likely to be occupied by students who are diverse in age, race and other parts of their identity.

“What we're doing here is asking them to pay extra money and do extra things and jump through extra hoops that we have no evidence to support are meaningful, even though we do have evidence to support knowing that they do not have access to the same resources to do so,” McLeod said.

For social workers like Andres, who are working toward their license, this bill could be a game changer.

“I think we should make it more accessible to people so that people can actually get to the finish line and then continue to serve our clients who desperately need our services,” Andres said.

What are the next steps?

McLeod said he thinks there are additional ways Oklahoma can reduce barriers, allowing the state to attract and retain even more social workers.

One avenue he sees would be removing the requirement for graduating master's students to take an exam before they can pursue a license. The test costs $230, which can be especially costly for students who have to take it multiple times.

A recent analysis by the Association of Social Work Boards also found that white students’ eventual pass rate was over 90%. High pass rates aren't the case for other races and ethnicities:

  • Asian: 75.5% eventual pass rate
  • Black: 51.9% eventual pass rate
  • Hispanic/Latino: 71.2% eventual pass rate
  • Multiracial: 85.1% eventual pass rate
  • Native American/Indigenous people: 72.2%

“We're saying the people we probably need most in the community, we're going to try to block from being out here in the community, based on a test that has questions that have been shown empirically to have racial bias,” McLeod said.

McLeod also said he hopes Oklahoma will enter a social work licensure compact, which would allow eligible social workers to practice in every state that joins the compact. Rep. Boatman said he would love to see work on it complete next year so Oklahoma lawmakers could discuss it during the next legislative session.

He said getting supervision hour requirements to a more nationally competitive level will be important if Oklahoma decides to enter a compact.

“We'd like to have that because we'd like to bring more people to Oklahoma because we have a shortage,” Boatman said. “If our licensing is out of balance with the other states around us, you're gonna have more people practicing and paying dues in other states and still able to practice in Oklahoma, and that's a challenge for us.”

Katelyn Andres is a licensed master's social worker. She's working under supervision as a therapeutic counselor in addiction recovery to get her clinical license.
Cody Giles
Katelyn Andres is a licensed master's social worker. She's working under supervision as a therapeutic counselor in addiction recovery to get her clinical license.

As Andres sat in her office, discussing how a reduction in hours might impact Oklahomans, she reflected on Nex Benedict, a nonbinary 16-year-old Owasso High School student who died by suicide Feb 8. following a fight that occurred the previous day with students in a school bathroom.

She said she thinks about those situations everyday, and they serve as an example of why policies like HB 3015 are vital.

“Those are the things and the issues that kind of stir in me as a social worker," Andres said. "We need to do all that we can to make getting help as easy and as stigma-free as possible because we see people unable to access (it).”

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Jillian Taylor has been StateImpact Oklahoma's health reporter since August 2023.
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