Seattle’s minimum-wage debate fails to factor in employees, clients of social service agencies

May 21, 2014, Vol: 21, No: 21

I am a residential counselor at a nonprofit housing project in Pioneer Square. The agency I work for provides housing for Seattle citizens struggling with mental illness, chemical dependency and other serious disabilities. My wages are almost entirely funded by government contracts, just like firefighters, librarians, bus drivers and public school teachers.

I see my job as a civic duty providing services including medication monitoring, de-escalating violent conflicts and offering emotional support to clients when they are suffering from traumatic loss, life-threatening illness and despair. I am responsible for emergency evacuations, cleaning up infectious waste and keeping economic and sexual predators out of the building. I have endured threats, and physical and verbal abuse, and I may even have to perform CPR some day. My primary task is responding patiently to crises in an intense environment, while doing my best to connect with and build community in partnership with the residents in the evenings.

Some nights I attend to the needs of 60 clients by myself, but wages for my job start at less than $12 per hour. After five years my wage will max out at $13.44 per hour.

The job is demanding. When you add the daily struggle of practicing self-care at poverty-level wages in Seattle, no matter how serious the commitment, my coworkers and I just can’t operate at our very best for long. No one chooses social services for the pay, but many promising candidates leave or never take a job because the field does not pay a living wage.

Improved wages would likely mean less chronic stress for staff, increased employee retention, more qualified future applicants — therefore better services for our clients. I was thrilled when the community got behind the $15 Now movement. Then I became anxious as business and nonprofit leaders began pushing for longer phase-ins and including the cost of benefits into the overall wage. I was frustrated when I saw Mayor Ed Murray’s current $15-an-hour proposal, which grants businesses three-to-seven years to increase employee pay and includes health insurance coverage in the wage calculation. And now local media is portraying the issue to taxpayers as a choice between paying me a livable wage and continuing to offer my clients basic human services.

Seattle residents need to know that providing housing to our most vulnerable citizens saves the city money. A sizable body of research shows that access to housing and clinical services for chronically homeless people reduces their use of hospitals, jails and other more-expensive alternatives. A 2009 study by Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC) suggests that the first year of operation of one of its 10 housing projects reduced jail-time, emergency room visits and other public services, reductions that saved taxpayers more than $4 million. This year’s One Night Count identified more than 3,000 men, women and children who went without shelter in the greater Seattle area. We should be looking for ways to increase programs, not discussing service cuts.

The costs of maintaining services while increasing worker wages are not insurmountable. DESC officials have publicly stated that to bring 171 staff members up to $15 an hour, the nonprofit will need an additional

$1.1 million per year. But, according to DESC’s 2011 tax-exempt annual reporting documents, the agency’s total employee compensation, salaries and wages was $9.6 million. It has likely increased since then.

For DESC, this means the mayor’s proposal results in no more than an 11 percent increase in real wages. And with that increase spread out over four years? That equates to less than a 3 percent increase per year, well in line with nationwide studies of for-profit organizations predicting almost 3 percent average wage increases and a 2 percent inflation rate in 2014.

Increased pay for low-wage, direct-service social workers will not only benefit social workers, but also benefit our clients, who need care from qualified and emotionally engaged staff. It will also benefit our city, which stands to save millions by avoiding even more expensive, long-term social and health care costs.

If businesses are expected make tough decisions in order to raise unfair wages, it is reasonable to expect that joint efforts between city and nonprofit leaders of Seattle can meet the same challenge. They can find funds to increase service workers’ pay without cutting services.

Author and Guest Writer James Watkins works for DESC in Pioneer Square.

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