New UW study says human services workers are underpaid by 37%

New UW study says human services workers are underpaid by 37%
New UW study says human services workers are underpaid by 37%

Human service workers with obvious parallels in other sectors, such as HR directors, suffer less of a wage penalty than those without a for-profit counterpart.

“The wage gap is there, but smaller,” said study co-author Jennie Romich, a professor in the UW School of Social Work. “Where you really see a wage penalty is … the social workers, the youth workers, the intake specialists; people doing the real work of human service.”

To better compare jobs without an exact parallel, researchers used questionnaires and interviews with workers inside and outside the human service sector to analyze their knowledge, skills, effort, responsibilities, and working conditions.

The resulting job evaluation scores allow easier comparison of apparently different jobs. For example, the median evaluation score for a human services caseworker in King County is 522 out of a possible 1,000 points, with a median salary of $60,099. A for-profit facility manager in King County scores 512 points but has a median salary of $81,465.

“It gave me new insight into thinking about the value of this work,” Romich said. “It’s not that [human services] jobs are easier, but what we actually showed was that the pay differences are there despite the fact that the work is just as hard or harder, just as skilled or more skilled.”

The sector’s pay gap has gender and racial implications. Women account for 79.3% of all human service workers in King County. The study also notes that “workers of color are overrepresented in the lowest-paying human service jobs, including frontline care work.”

The report outlines seven short- and long-term recommendations to close the pay gap.

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By 2025, the authors recommend:

  • That the real wage for human services increases by a minimum of 7% across the board;
  • That there are inflation-promoting wage adjustments each year separate from the 7% equity adjustment;
  • That organizations maintain or improve non-wage benefits alongside wage increases (or at least not cut fringe benefits to raise wages);
  • And that public agencies and non-profit organizations consider pay equality as part of their stated race and gender equality work.

By 2030, the authors recommend:

  • At least a 40% increase from the current salary level
  • That the human services sector establish a wage grading system that sets minimum wage standards based on job characteristics;
  • And that public contracts are used to promote pay equality.

If workers are to see significant increases, they must largely come from city, county and state budgets. Human service nonprofits rely mainly on government contracts to pay for their operations, along with a smaller mix of philanthropic grants and private donations.

Advocates have made some progress in recent years in their lobbying for larger contracts. In 2019, the Seattle City Council voted to bind human services contracts to the consumer price index to take account of inflation. This became a point of friction in Budget negotiations for 2023 when Mayor Bruce Harrell proposed raising the contract by 4%, less than the rate of inflation at the time. The council ultimately voted to maintain the full inflation adjustment.

At the state level, Governor Jay Inslee included a 5% increase for homeless service contracts in his proposed budget to help raise wages and offset inflation. Recognizing the workforce crisis, the Legislature used federal pandemic relief money to pay for scholarship of 4000 dollars intended to provide short-term emergency relief for front-line staff in homeless services.

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But so far, these increases at the local and state level primarily adjust for inflation, without raising base wages. The Seattle Human Services Coalition plans to use the findings from this study to help make their case in the coming years. Without higher wages, they argue, Seattle will never make progress on its most pressing problems.

“You can trace almost every one of the frustrations you hear about living in Seattle these days to an inadequate response to the problem from [human services] system,” said Southwest Family and Youth Services Executive Director Steve Daschle. “We just don’t have the capacity to support or solve the problem. Partly because we can’t hire enough personnel to do the job.”

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