November 16, 2022

Salaries for human services workers — those who help older individuals, provide assistance to people living with disabilities or work with community food services, for example — often lag behind other sectors, despite the high skill-level required, demanding nature of the work, and critical value to the community.

Given Seattle’s high cost of living, the challenges facing underpaid and undervalued workers are acute. On top of that, wage inequality disproportionately affects women of color and immigrant communities. It’s a growing problem affecting about 20,000 individuals in Seattle who undertake human services work in city-based nonprofits.

This summer, Seattle’s Human Services Department awarded a contract to the University of Washington’s School of Social Work to conduct a comparable-worth wage analysis, in which researchers will compare nonprofit human services positions with jobs in other fields that require similar levels of skills, education and responsibility. The team is split into three areas -- job analysis, market analysis and policy analysis – which will provide a better understand of the interplay among issues related to comparable worth and compensation. The contract amount is $498,278.

“Wage and compensation studies are fairly common but our study is unique in that we are concentrating on the nonprofit sector,” said Professor Jennifer Romich, principal investigator and director of the School’s West Coast Poverty Center “That narrows our study to care workers who are employed in nonprofit agencies receiving city or county funding.”

The project is particularly timely. Employment trends during the pandemic have shifted and workers are rethinking their values and priorities. King County saw this unfold first-hand, as many human services employees left their current jobs to pursue more sustainable working conditions in the for-profit sector where they got higher pay and better benefits.

According to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA), direct-service workers in King County are paid an average of $19.70 an hour; for case managers, the hourly wage is $24.92. Yet an individual needs to earn more than $42 an hour to afford rent on a one-bedroom apartment in Seattle’s costly real-estate market.

Lower wages can have a dramatic trickle-down effect. They impact recruitment and retention, and high turnover can reduce the quality of care. “When human services workers are better compensated, they feel more valued and may remain in their positions longer,” said Associate Professor Emiko Tajima, study co-investigator and executive director of the School’s Partners for Our Children. “When workers move to the private sector because of higher wages, all their knowledge, skills and expertise go with them.”

Joining Romich and Tajima on the study’s core coordinating team are: Shannon Harper, West Coast Poverty Center research director, and Nicole Sadow-Hasenberg, communications manager, Partners for Our Children. They will be supported by researchers from the University of Washington and other U. S. and British academic institutions and nonprofit research organizations.

“We are bringing in an international set of experts,” said Romich. “Our researchers have scholarship and expertise in this area of study but for many, this will be the first time they will apply it in a specific and local environment.”

On the job evaluation analysis team are Ariane Hegewisch (Institute for Women’s Policy Research, UK), Heather Wakefield (Greenwich University, UK) and Nicole Vallestero Keenan, a Seattle-based independent researcher and School of Social Work graduate (MSW ’11). Hegewisch is an expert on pay equity and workplace discrimination. Wakefield analyzes comparable worth, particularly low-wage care work. “Heather has worked with Unison, the largest public service union in the UK, so she knows the methodology, has designed interview protocols and is familiar with similar data,” said Romich. Keenan, who has 14 years’ experience with area nonprofits in labor standards, racial equity and economic policy, will conduct and analyze the local interviews.

The market analysis team includes Nancy Folbre, an economist and MacArthur recipient (University of Massachusetts-Amherst); Leila Gautham, an expert in gender wage inequality (University of Leeds UK); and sociologist Kristin Smith, a specialist on gender and occupational differences in the workplace (Dartmouth University).

Chrishana M. Lloyd, an expert in human care work and human services, and Kim England, who specializes in how care work is interwoven with systemic inequality, particularly gender, race and immigration status, comprise the policy analysis team. Both are affiliated with the University of Washington.

Over the years, the School has prepared hundreds of students for human services careers so its researchers understand the context and relevance of the work although as Romich points out, “School graduates are often the most advantaged workers in this field, especially those with MSWs, since they are often the ones running the programs.

“But what about the front-line workers without degrees?” she continues. “These workers are likely women of color or immigrants. This is where economic justice comes in. All workers have value, and we want to make sure these workers get fair compensation.”