With COVID-19 spreading, FL social workers face limitations trying to help vulnerable families

Kids eating lunch during a health and wellness event in Quincy at Carter-Parramore Academy in Gadsden County, which has high poverty. Credit: Candiace Williams

In high-poverty rural areas of Florida, the state’s most vulnerable families struggle to get by and often need assistance from social workers.

But now that the coronavirus pandemic has caused a public health emergency in Florida, both public and private social workers are limited in what they can do to help.

Candiace Williams is a social worker at the Center for Health Equity, a nonprofit that provides social services and outreach programs in Gadsden County, outside of Tallahassee, and works with pregnant women and children.

Williams has had to transition to telehealth services – via the phone – instead of visiting consumers at their homes as usual. She said the organization also gets referrals from the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF).

“Most of our consumers don’t have the means to receive video services,” Williams said in a phone call with the Florida Phoenix. “As of this week, we stopped going to consumers houses, unless it’s an emergency. We are providing services over the phone. But we are trying not to leave the office.”

Gadsden County consists of rural areas such as Quincy and Havana, with a population size of about 46,000.

Many people in those communities lack resources such as high-speed internet and other amenities that would allow for remote services.

Williams also noted the importance of keeping her consumers in the loop about health concerns stemming from the pandemic.

“We work with a lot of consumers who don’t have high school diplomas,” she said. “A lot of our job is education, so a lot of consumers depend on us. We provide clarity if they have concerns. Most of our consumers are not panicking.”

Both state and private agencies are now exploring other electronic options such as phone and video-based visits to ensure access to services.

Jim Akin, executive director of the National Association of Social Workers, Florida chapter, said in a phone call with the Florida Phoenix that remote work will be tough for most social workers.

“It’s kind of difficult to work from home,” Akin said. “Most private practices are incorporating telehealth and teletherapy.”

According to NASW’s website, clinical social workers and clients can use video chat technologies such as FaceTime and Skype for teletherapy sessions during the public health emergency.

“If they work for DCF they probably have internal policies. Some people are going to continue to need help and require to be seen,” he said.

Meanwhile, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced last week that travel for state employees is suspended for at least 30 days and told agencies to allow for employees to work from home.

“If they can perform functions at home, now’s a good time to do that,” DeSantis said, in a previous Phoenix report.

However, it’s unclear if it’s even possible for all state workers to perform their duties remotely.

Kelly Benjamin, communications director of AFSCME Florida, a union representing public service workers, said in a phone call with the Florida Phoenix that “the situation is changing hourly.”

Benjamin explained that AFSCME has set up a hotline for its members “to address issues that are arising in the workplace statewide as a result of COVID-19,” the respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus.

In addition, Benjamin said in a written statement: “During this unprecedented emergency, AFSCME Florida is working hard to ensure our members have accurate, up to date information and we are urging all members to keep us abreast of issues arising in the workplace as a result of COVID-19.”

“We are urging all of our members to limit social contact and wear gloves with all interactions with the public. We are diligently reaching out to employers to work with them and address issues with the goal of ensuring all of our public service workers on the front lines of this crisis are kept safe and healthy.”

Wednesday, DCF announced through a press release that they’ve “temporarily closed all storefronts and lobbies to safeguard the public and employees from the spread of COVID-19.”

And the department, which deals with food stamps and other state benefits, said they will continue “to use technology to ensure continuity of service.”

DCF Secretary Chad Poppell said in a written statement that, “The quickest way to make changes or check the status of a client’s benefits, and avoid any wait time, is to use the ACCESS Self-Service Portal, which is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

The Florida Department of Financial Services has begun exploring remote working opportunities for its workers.

Devin Galetta, communications director for Jimmy Patronis, the elected chief financial officer of Florida, said in a written statement to the Phoenix that the agency is working with other state departments “to maximize the Department’s capacity for teleworking arrangements.”