A report from the University of Washington School of Social Work published on Feb. 22 confirms what many Seattle-area nonprofit social services workers already know: they are gravely underpaid compared to other sectors.
Researchers estimated that, when adjusting for factors like age, experience and education, median pay for direct services workers was at least 37 percent lower than non-human services or care fields.
The wage equity study originated from the advocacy of nonprofit social services workers who argued that working conditions were so poor that organizations couldn’t provide the services they wanted, even when funding was allocated, because of a shortage in staffing.
“The issue of finding enough people to work in our sector became a crisis last year when many of us had so many open positions that we simply couldn’t actually provide the support,” said Steve Daschle, the executive director of Southwest Youth and Family Services and a co-chair of the Seattle Human Services Coalition (SHSC). He pointed to the case of a shelter that Seattle wanted to open in 2022. The city had to retract the request for proposals after no organization was able to take on the contract. This led the city’s Human Services Department to fund the study.
The report also highlights the way the wage gap is deeply gendered and racialized. Women and Black workers are disproportionately affected. Nearly 80 percent of direct services workers in King County are female, and Black people are three times more likely to work in the sector compared to the overall population.
Part of the wage equity problem may originate from Ronald Reagan-era privatization schemes, which saw social services defunded and relegated to nonprofits instead of the government.
“Since the 1980s, we have seen a proliferation of nonprofits providing a variety of services, and there are some really positive outcomes from that experience, because nonprofits have the opportunity to work more quickly and more nimbly than the government typically can,” Daschle said. “On the other hand, it also has created a tremendously fractured and inefficient system of service provision. And that’s sort of the position we find ourselves in today, where we have multiple nonprofits providing a variety of services in a way that can be spotty and piecemeal, sometimes.”
SHSC Executive Director Tree Willard said that this fracturing of public services has led to a race to the bottom, where nonprofits have to compete for contracts, leading to worse wages and benefits for workers.
“It contributes to the divide-and-conquer and competition energies that are part of what upholds white supremacy in our country,” Willard said.
This outsourcing issue also makes it harder for workers to unionize and organize compared to their government peers. That decreases nonprofit workers’ bargaining power and further depresses their wages.
“When you have an industry that is based around chronic low staffing and high turnover, it’s really hard for the same people to work at the organization long enough to kind of develop that kind of workplace cohesion,” said Jason Austin, an organizer with SHSC.
In addition to outsourcing, UW researchers found that nonprofit workers experience a number of “penalties” just for working in their sector. A penalty is defined as a social, institutional, cultural or structural factor of discrimination that leads to the pay equity gap.
This includes racism and sexism, as well as the devaluing of care labor. Direct services jobs can often be mentally and emotionally taxing, but workers are not compensated for this additional aspect of their labor. Direct services providers also serve poorer and less powerful people in society who don’t have as much access to power brokers, leading to less funding and support for the sector. All these penalties help explain the large gap between nonprofit social services workers and other fields.
The researchers recommended a number of policy proposals that could help alleviate the equity gap, such as having nonprofits and their funders increase pay by at least 7 percent immediately and include both inflation and equity adjustments separately. One long-term proposal was to implement a civil service-style pay scale so that nonprofit sector workers do not compete against each other in a race to the bottom.
Austin said that SHSC is talking to foundations as well as public officials at both the city and state levels to identify ways to raise more money from philanthropy and progressive taxation.
“Something that’s really core to our campaign is that wage equity needs to be implemented without cutting services to the community, which I think we implicitly understand as we need to see the pie expanded,” they said. “We’re not interested in cutting things up in creative ways; the pie needs to be bigger.”
In addition to increasing wages and conditions in the shorter term, Willard hopes that the wage equity campaign could lead to long-term structural transformation.
“But these are incremental changes that we need now to sort of stem the bleeding, so to speak. ... I want to know what a system that works looks like, and I want for us to design that together in partnership with all of the people who care, which includes the community that are impacted every day,” Willard said.
Ultimately, Willard said that wage inequity in the social services sector threatens the critical provisions community members depend upon.
“We’re a self-selecting group of people with a lot of compassion, and our work tends to be really essential,” they said. “You know, if all the human service organizations in Seattle closed tomorrow, people might die.”
Read more of the Feb. 22-28, 2023 issue.