After an arduous city budget season, Seattle City Council voted for a 3 percent inflation adjustment on human services contracts, which would provide long overdue cost of living adjustment (COLA) raises for social service workers. It also included a one-time 5.8 percent inflation adjustment to be used for appreciation pay for social service employees during COVID-19.
The Human Service Department’s (HSD) contracted providers employ many frontline workers who cannot work remotely, such as shelter workers and crisis response workers. However, unlike childcare providers and grocery workers, the majority have not received additional pay or wages during the pandemic, leading to increased staff turnover and vacancy.
This comes on the heels of local organization Choose 180 raising its wages to $70,000 per year across the board for all its employees, setting a precedent for other nonprofits to pay their frontline workers a livable wage.
Many frontline workers have experienced severe working conditions during the pandemic, such as increased crisis response, extreme vicarious trauma and exposure to COVID-19. After years of feeling that they are being underpaid, many social service workers are vacating their positions, leading to service disruption for people experiencing homelessness or who are in crisis.
In a city that requires a $72,000 per year salary to live comfortably according to estimates from GOBankingrates.com, often social service employees are one crisis away from qualifying for the very services they provide. With rising costs of housing, food and transportation, many social service workers are struggling to make ends meet during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“More and more service staff are close to not being able to keep their own households secure. Our region’s progress will fail if community organizations that do this essential work cannot hire, train, support, retain and promote the skilled, diverse workers who are at the heart of lasting solutions to this crisis,” said Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness.
“For decades, homeless services and housing have been drastically underfunded, with fractional funding instead of deep and sustained investments. We need to pay people what they’re worth,” Eisinger said. “It takes heart, skills, grit and consistency to do this work well on a personal level. On an agency level, a strong and stable workforce is crucial. And on a system level, well, as a society, we get what we pay for — or what we don’t pay for.”
“We recognize the social services field has been historically undervalued, which is why we included funding in the budget for a pay equity analysis study. This requires the new mayor to implement, which we will watch closely,” said City Councilmember and Chair of the Budget Committee Teresa Mosqueda, who introduced the bill with inflation increases.
The budget vote also funded the new crisis and referral system to provide alternative unarmed crisis responses for people needing help, as well as the pay equity analysis that aims to ensure providers can retain and attract staff during the dual crises of homelessness and COVID-19.
The pay equity analysis study granted $600,000 to HSD to analyze the worth of social services jobs compared to jobs in different fields, especially those in the private sector. The funds will support project management staff, consultants and other expenses for a study that will serve as a benchmark for compensating social service providers with fair wages. The proposed study would consider the core functions and requirements of social services jobs, including the level of authority and responsibility, required training, environment, difficulty, working conditions and hours. It would determine a value for those elements across sectors.
Local nonprofits such as Solid Ground are also reckoning with pay structures and plan to conduct internal compensation studies. However, some social service workers are worried hiring costly consultants isn’t enough. It’s difficult to quantify trauma-informed care and lived experience, which, they contend, are more effective in social service roles than the advanced degrees and certifications that are valued higher in the private sector.
“How do you quantify responding to a mental health crisis after hours? Or building relationships with private landlords to rent to people experiencing homelessness? Compensation studies may work in the private sector, but our work isn’t so cut and dry,” said Esther Bat-El, a case manager at a local shelter.
Kayla Blau is a youth advocate who has also written for the South Seattle Emerald, Crosscut, The Stranger and the Seattle Globalist. More of her work can be found at https://kaylablau.contently.com.
Correction: The original version of this article included an incorrect inflation amount for human services contracts. The correct amount is 3 percent. The newspaper regrets the error.
Read more of the Dec. 8-14, 2021 issue.