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

Seattle homeless outreach, child care and elder care workers are leaving for higher wages, making it harder to provide care for the city’s most vulnerable.

a person holds a sign at a rally outside city hall reading "my work is essential"

Human services workers gather in the Seattle City Hall plaza to rally for increased wages that will cover inflation, at a minimum, on Tuesday, November 8, 2022. (Grant Hindsley for Crosscut)

Nobody’s ever gotten rich as a human services worker. But the gulf between wages and the Seattle-area cost of living used to be a lot more manageable for people staffing front-line homeless services, childcare and elder care centers, food banks, crisis hotlines and other nonprofit care work.

Thirty years ago, Crisis Connections CEO Michelle McDaniel could afford her own apartment in Ballard as a front-line behavioral health worker. Money was still tight and she often took side jobs to help make ends meet, but, she said, “I could live within the city … I was able to still have choices.”

These days, her staff and other workers in the industry often live with roommates or with their parents, or find themselves commuting from farther and farther outside Seattle to find somewhere they can afford.

Lagging wages and the rising cost of living combined with often-challenging work have created a workforce crisis in the human services sector, say industry leaders and advocates. 

Workers are leaving for higher-paying careers in the for-profit sector, including in fast food and retail, and organizations are struggling to hire new workers to fill vacant positions. It’s a problematic cycle that’s making it increasingly difficult to provide care for the region’s most vulnerable people.

A new study from the University of Washington puts hard numbers to the anecdotes human services workers have long shared. Researchers conducted a market analysis of wages in human services, comparing them to pay for similar jobs outside the sector. They also compared the skills and requirements of human services work to other higher-paid work requiring similar or even lesser skills.

The wage equity study was paid for by the city of Seattle and spearheaded by the Seattle Human Services Coalition, a group of organizations and advocates in the sector.

The market analysis found that nonprofit human services workers in Washington earn 37% less than similar workers in for-profit non-care industries. The median annual earnings for all full-time human services workers in the state was $33,995 in 2019, compared to a median of $54,831 for full-time workers in non-care industries.

The report notes that the self-sufficiency income level for a Seattle household with a single adult and a preschooler was $69,215 in 2020. In a two-parent household with two children, each adult would need to earn $43,097 to house, feed and care for the family.

Workers who leave human services for jobs in a different industry see a net pay increase of 7% within a year, compared to workers who stay.

The human services sector includes a broad category of care work such as homeless services, supportive housing, domestic violence work, early childhood education, eldercare, food security, teen services and behavioral health. In Seattle and King County, the work is primarily performed by nonprofits on contracts with government agencies.

Kyle Lane of the Low Income Housing Institute, center, rallies with Seattle human services providers as they request an increase in wages at the Seattle City Hall plaza on Tuesday, November 8, 2022. (Grant Hindsley for Crosscut)

Human services workers with obvious parallels in other sectors such as HR directors suffer less of a wage penalty than those with no for-profit counterpart.

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

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

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

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

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

The report outlines seven short- and longer-term recommendations for closing the wage equity gap.

By 2025, the authors recommend: 

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

By 2030, the authors recommend: 

  • At least a 40% raise from current salary levels
  • That the human services sector create a salary grade system that sets minimum pay standards based on job characteristics;
  • And that public contracts be used to further wage equity.

If workers are going to see significant raises, they will have to come largely from city, county and state budgets. Nonprofit human services organizations rely primarily on government contracts to pay for their operations, alongside 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 tie human services contracts to the Consumer Price Index to account for inflation. This became a friction point in 2023 budget negotiations when Mayor Bruce Harrell proposed capping contract increases at 4%, less than the rate of inflation at the time. The council ultimately voted to maintain the full inflationary adjustment.

At the state level, Gov. Jay Inslee included a 5% increase for homeless services contracts in his proposed budget to help increase wages and offset inflation. In recognition of the workforce crisis, the Legislature used federal pandemic relief money to pay for $4,000 stipends meant to provide short term relief for frontline homeless services workers.

But so far, those increases at the local and state level adjust primarily 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 coming years. Without higher wages, they argue, Seattle will never make progress on its most pressing problems.

“You can tie almost every one of the frustrations you hear about living in Seattle these days back to an inadequate response to the problem by the [human services] system,” said Southwest Family and Youth Services executive director Steve Daschle. “We just don’t have the capacity to support or address the problem. In part because we can’t hire enough staff to do the work.”

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