Study: Human Service Wages Are Even Worse Than You Imagined

By Erica C. Barnett

It’s well-known that human services workers, particularly those who work for nonprofit agencies, are underpaid, making less than both private-market workers with similar backgrounds and skills and government employees who do similar work. A new city-funded study, initiated by the Seattle Human Services Coalition and conducted by researchers at the University of Washington found that nonprofit human-services workers are paid 37 percent less than workers in other industries with comparable jobs, and that people who left jobs in human services for jobs in other fields saw their wages increase more than 14 percent.

The study took a novel approach, comparing jobs based on factors like responsibility, skills, and effort required to perform them, regardless of whether they were in the same field or had a similar job description. The idea was to eliminate some of the disparities that are built into many job types; jobs that are mostly held by men, for example, tend to pay significantly more than jobs that are mostly held by women even if the jobs require a similar level of education, experience, and skill.

“Previously, a lot of us would use different surveys that would compare nonprofit to nonprofit without really looking at the underlying factors of what makes up our jobs,” Ballard Food Bank executive director Jen Muzia said. In this “comparable worth” analysis, for example, a school age enrichment worker (average salary: $45,000) has a similar job worth as a journey electrician (average salary: $79,000.)

Using this method, along with a straightforward market analysis of average wages for different jobs in human services and non-human services positions, the researchers concluded that “human services workers are systematically paid less than workers in non-care industries, with estimated pay gaps of 30% or more.” To reach parity, the report concludes, human service workers would need an average pay boost of 43 to percent.

In the short term, the researchers recommend pay increases of 7 percent across the board for nonprofit human service workers, on top of annual adjustments for inflation, with longer-term substantive changes—such as new salary standards with minimum pay for various types of jobs—by 2030.

“We’ve had to delay the start of some of our preschool classrooms for about two months because we didn’t have the staff to open the classroom. It impacts kids’ and families’ access to the programs and services that they need.”—Neighborhood House director Janice Deguchi

Nonprofit leaders say they’re losing talented workers—and struggling to recruit new ones—because they can’t offer competitive wages. Janice Deguchi, the executive director of Neighborhood House, said the nonprofit recently lost a teacher who had been working to connect a developmentally delayed child to the group’s early-learning program and other services.

“She worked all year to help this family,” Deguchi said, “and then she left the entire field of early learning to work in marketing for more money.” Faced with the prospect of starting all over with a new set of teachers, the family left the program. “That was just a huge missed opportunity,” she said, “because that teacher couldn’t stay in the field.”

More broadly, Deguchi said, low wages have made it hard to hire qualified staff. “We’ve had to delay the start of some of our preschool classrooms for about two months because we didn’t have the staff to open the classroom. So it does impact kids’ and families’ access to the programs and services that they need.”

Steve Daschle, the director of Southwest Youth and Family Services, said another issue with high turnover is that nonprofits have to constantly train new workers, which means “we don’t have the opportunity to develop relationships—which is key to building successful human services efforts. People leave as they gain the expertise. They move to a different sector. And so we have to start from scratch with new staff in those positions and that, I think, hampers our ability to fully support the community.”

The Human Services Coalition will use the study as part of its advocacy campaign for higher wages at nonprofits, which organizer Jason Austin says will go beyond annual requests for funding from the city and King County. “We’re going to take these results to all of the community groups and to our members and really have a live conversation about what it’s going to take to raise [new] revenues, because it’s not necessarily just the traditional policy advocacy,” Austin said. “Jen’s program [the Ballard Food Bank] is mostly funded by from non governmental sources. So we also need to take this information to individual donors to the philanthropic community, to private funders, and also implement the recommendations of the report in those spaces.”

Getting the city and county to support large wage increases won’t be easy. For years, both governments have struggled to fund cost of living increases that would keep social service providers’ wages from declining in real terms—much less raise them to livable levels. Last year, Mayor Bruce Harrell proposed capping wage increases for homeless service providers well below the rate of inflation, an effective pay cut. Although the city council restored the inflationary increases, which are required by law, the bump will only keep these workers’ real wages at the same level as last year.

Meanwhile, the King County behavioral health crisis center levy, on the ballot in April, includes funding for higher wages at the new county-run crisis centers, but does nothing to increase pay for other workers whose wages are funded through county contracts..

One thought on “Study: Human Service Wages Are Even Worse Than You Imagined”

  1. Who paid for the survey? Oh, a conflict influenced the results? You do this job as it is something important to yo, personally. If not, find a better paying job doing similar work but in the private sector

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