On July 12, the city of Seattle awarded a $498,278 contract to the University of Washington (UW) School of Social Work for a study comparing wages for human services jobs to other similarly skilled positions in the Seattle and King County area. The contract fulfills a request for a proposal issued in May, and the results must be returned no later than Jan. 31, 2023.
“This analysis will compare positions in the human services sector with jobs in different fields that require similar levels of skills, education, and responsibility giving us all a better understanding of what equitable wages should be for this difficult, valuable work,” said Steve Daschle, director of Southwest Youth & Family Services, in a press release announcing the contract award.
Daschle is also a co-chair of the Seattle Human Services Coalition (SHSC), which will aid UW in producing the report. The SHSC runs the “Raising Wages for Changing Lives” campaign. According to the campaign’s website, “Raising Wages” urges leaders and elected officials in King County to “raise the funds necessary for the seamless implementation of wage equity for our communities’ human service workers without reducing services to residents across King County, including Seattle.”
Human services workers include child care workers, healthcare workers in community clinics, outreach workers who work with unhoused populations, eldercare workers, youth program workers and people who take care of disabled people, among others. These people, said Janice Deguchi, another co-chair of the SHSC and the executive director of Neighborhood House, in a press release, “are often paid at such low levels that they qualify for public assistance themselves.”
While the report is not explicitly framed as an effort to increase wages for human services workers, the general consensus among people familiar with the sector is that pay is abysmally low.
“Their pay doesn’t reflect the education required, difficulty, or value of their work to build economic, emotional, physical, developmental, and social well-being for all community members,” Deguchi said in the press release.
When completed, the report will represent the most current information on how human services workers in Seattle and King County are paid compared to people with similar skills and education levels, but it won’t necessarily be news.
King County did a report of its own in March of this year, outlining just how little human services and nonprofit workers make in the region.
The results of the “Putting People First” survey provide an extremely detailed picture of nonprofit and government human service worker compensation, but the gist of it, as King County Executive Dow Constantine wrote in a letter about the report’s findings, is that, “Many nonprofit employees working in critical services like shelter provision, violence prevention, and community health make wages at levels that make it difficult to sustain a career doing community-based work in our region.”
A slide titled “Provider Wages Are Not Sustainable” from a May 27 presentation on the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s (KCRHA) proposed 2023 budget showed that the agency’s direct service workers make $19.70 per hour. A case manager’s hourly wage was $24.92. It also included statistics showing that the median income in King County is $49.04 per hour, the wage needed to afford a one-bedroom apartment is $42.31 per hour and the wage considered low-income is $39.42 per hour.
That disparity, besides being massively unfair to human services workers, also leads to a lack of qualified providers.
“Millions of people quit their jobs around the country throughout the pandemic, and King County was no different. Nonprofit employees in our region left their sector for more sustainable working conditions, higher pay, and better benefits,” wrote Leon Richardson, a director in the King County adult services division, in a blog post discussing the county’s report on March 9.
Without fixing the issues around living wages and working conditions in the human services sector, our region will fail to make progress on its most pressing issues, say many people working in the field.
Anne Martens, the senior director of external affairs and communications for the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, is one of them.
In an email exchange with Real Change discussing the agency’s request for additional human services worker pay, Martens put it this way: “This work comes down to people helping people, and without people, the whole system falls apart.”
The KCRHA asked for $15.4 million to close the pay gap for its frontline workers in their 2023 budget request. Unfortunately, that request is in the context of a $117 million budget shortfall for one of its key funders: the city of Seattle.
Will they get it? Per Marc Dones, KCHRA’s CEO, that’s a hard maybe.
“I think that it is unreasonable that everything we put forward will be funded,” they said in a June 2 media roundtable discussing the agency’s budget requests. They declined to say which budget items were the agency’s highest priorities.
While the KCRHA does not employ many human services workers directly, Martens said in a later email that her interactions with KCRHA-contracted agencies led her to believe that the staffing situation is dire.
“I don’t know how many people our contractors have right now, but I do know that there are vacancies at REACH and other places, and that we hear regularly that outreach providers do not have sufficient staff to provide the ideal 2-3 months of outreach to build trust with people who have been through significant trauma or have been burned by the system,” she wrote. Their systems advocate team, which tries to employ people who have lived experience with homelessness to provide long-term assistance to currently unhoused people, pays a bit better on purpose.
“We made a decision as an organization that we would pay all our staff living wages for this region, so the range for a Systems Advocate is $75-85,000/year. We are fully staffed on that team and do not have any openings,” Martens said in the same email.
A spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office did not respond to questions about whether the city considers its HOPE team, which handles homelessness outreach, fully staffed. The city of Seattle is currently hiring only two case managers for its Human Services Department, both with a salary range from $33-39 per hour.
It might seem obvious that paying at or below the low-income line in a city that has done nothing but get more expensive is going to make it hard to attract people with masters degrees and student debt — social workers themselves have been saying this — but the report could contain some curveballs.
It does, after all, study working conditions in addition to pay. Maybe bouncy ball chairs and foosball tables would do it?
We’ll find out in seven months.
Tobias Coughlin-Bogue is the associate editor at Real Change.
Read more of the July 27-Aug. 2, 2022 issue.