March 9, 2023

A new study from the University of Washington School of Social Work estimates that human services workers in Washington state make at least 30% less than workers in other industries. For human services workers employed by nonprofit organizations, the gap is 37%.

The wage equity analysis was led by a core team of researchers from the School of Social Work under a $498,278 contract from Seattle’s Human Services Department. Human services workers provide a variety of critical and demanding services, such as caring for older individuals, assisting people living with disabilities or providing child day care.

According to the report, the annual median earnings for a full-time human services worker in 2019 was $33,995; a median worker in a non-caregiving industry was paid $54,831, nearly 40% more. When workers leave the human services industry for a job in a different field, they generally see an hourly pay increase of 7% within a year, above and beyond the typical increase associated with switching jobs.

“Non-profit human services workers are critical to building and maintaining the human, social and institutional strengths of our communities, yet this study shows that their wages are systematically lower compared with other industries,” said UW School of Social Work Professor Jennifer Romich, the study’s principal investigator and director of the School’s West Coast Poverty Center. “Both specific policy decisions over time as well as the larger cultural devaluation of care work lead to lower wages for human services work.”

The team found that nearly half of human services workers are employed in the nonprofit sector locally, and that King County human services workers are more likely to work for nonprofit organizations compared to the national workforce. Women comprise 80% of the industry, and Black adults are nearly three times as likely to work in human services as they are in non-caring industries. Overall, 61% of human services workers have a bachelor’s or advanced degree.

The study also included a “comparable worth” analysis in which a subset of human services jobs were compared to jobs in other industries using a multi-factor classification method, allowing researchers to compare different sorts of jobs. The job analysis illustrated that human services work is undervalued relative to other jobs at similar levels of required skill and difficulty. “This finding underscores that the pay for human services work is less,” said Emiko Tajima, study co-investigator and executive director of the School’s Partners for Our Children, “not because it is easier or less demanding. Rather, the pay is less despite the high level of skill, responsibility and difficulty.”

The researchers recommended short- and long-term policy proposals that could help alleviate the wage inequities. These included increasing wages by a minimum of 7% as soon as possible in addition to needed inflation adjustments. To achieve more equitable wages by 2030, the team recommended a cumulative real wage increase of more than 40%.

In addition to Romich and Tajima, the study’s core team included Shannon Harper, West Coast Poverty Center deputy director, and Nicole Sadow-Hasenberg, a UW lecturer. They were supported by researchers from the UW and other U. S. and British academic institutions and nonprofit research organizations.