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Human services workers deserve a living wage

The Seattle City Council is poised to vote on a budget that includes pay increases for human services workers who take on the difficult job of helping people who have been failed by systems. These could be people who suffer from substance use disorders or other mental health issues. More and more often, however, they’re people who have worked all of their lives and simply could no longer afford the cost of living in places that they’ve created a home, built support networks, and otherwise cannot leave.

Caring for the most vulnerable members of our community is an honorable task. It is also one that has traditionally come with sacrifice. According to a study by the University of Washington School of Social Work, human services workers employed by nonprofit organizations in Washington state are paid 37 percent less than comparable positions in other industries. These are often people with bachelors and masters degrees making a median salary of $33,995 per year. That level of pay limits the kinds of people who can accept those jobs, likely forcing people with lived experience or other relevant skills to look for work that is better able to support themselves and their families. 

Recently, one of the largest providers in the Puget Sound Region, DESC, announced that it would increase its wages so that its workers can have a better quality of life. Executive Director Daniel Malone pointed to the turnover rate, which makes it harder to provide stable care for participants in DESC’s programs. The Tacoma Housing Authority also took steps this year to increase its minimum salaries, and the King County Regional Homelessness Authority established from its inception that it would pay its staff living wages.

Purpose. Dignity. Action. (PDA) made the same decision in 2020, as did one of our partner organizations, REACH, which provides outreach work to the people that we serve.

Why is this so important?

It is no secret that it’s expensive to live in the Seattle area. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s annual report, Out of Reach, the average worker in Seattle-Bellevue area, as defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, would have to make $47.21 per hour to afford a basic apartment without becoming “rent burdened,” which means paying above 30 percent of their income in rent.

Think about that. The minimum wage in Seattle is $18.69 per hour, and that is considered high on a national scale. The federal minimum wage remains $7.25 per hour and has been stuck there since 2009. Based on wage data for the city of Seattle, the median hourly wage for a government employee is $46.68, still below what it would take for one person working 40 hours a week to rent a two-bedroom apartment at fair market value.

And then, of course, there is inflation – the consumer price index for urban and clerical workers, also called the CPI-W, is on a consistent upward trend, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Do you have small children? Your average child care cost in Washington state is more than $14,000 a year for toddlers. If you have children, the Census Bureau says you’re more likely to have a pet. That’s less common in Seattle where dogs outnumber children, but either way, those furry friends cost, too. MetLife, a company that provides pet insurance, estimates that bill to come in at $1,400 a year.

Health care? That just went up for thousands of Washingtonians, according to the Seattle Times.

It is expensive to live. It’s a big reason that there are so very many people that need help. Human services workers fill that gap, and it is right for them to be paid for the work they do, for the education they have, and for the life experiences they’ve accrued in such a way that they can help people out of homelessness and poverty, not become enmired in it.