Nobody gets into the nonprofit world to get rich, but we do need to be able to survive, and thrive. And the city budget, being touted in many places as generous, does not ensure that I can.
For the past few years, I’ve been working as a caseworker with older adults at Encore Community Services. I’ve always wanted to give back to my community and in order to do so, I pursued a graduate degree in social work. Each day, I help older adults with their needs, helping them navigate benefits such as SNAP and housing and insurance. This work means the world to me. But I am barely getting by.
Compensation at nonprofits like my employer, Encore Community Services, are established by their contracts with the city and as things currently stand, workforces like ours, which are primarily made up of women and people of color, get stagnant wages. We make 25-30% less than our counterparts in comparable roles in the government and private sectors.
For the better part of the year, advocates for the human services sector were calling for the city budget to include three major reforms: establishing a cost of living adjustment of 5.4% on all human services contracts, setting a living wage floor of no less than $21-per-hour for all human services workers, and creating a wage and benefit schedule for government contracted human services employees comparable to the salaries made by city employees in the same field.
When push came to shove, the city decided that a cost of living increase of 4% was sufficient. But it is not going to be, not for me, or my peers. While the gesture is genuinely appreciated, the city needs to do better by its essential employees.
We need equitable prevailing wages across the entire contracted New York City human services sector. The only way for this to happen is for the city to increase funding for human service contracts.
When the pandemic created and exacerbated multiple crises at the same time, nonprofit human services workers didn’t freeze. We adjusted and worked tirelessly to make sure needs were met. In addition to my primary responsibilities, I packed meals, I checked in on older adults on the weekends, even stood outside their doors and had conversations with them to make sure they didn’t feel alone. Our efforts cannot be met with business as usual, because the temptation to leave is ever present. I think about leaving the nonprofit sector every day, and I’m not the only one.
Statistically, my industry is bleeding people, as the average vacancy rate for a human services nonprofit in New York stands at 11%.That means those who are sticking around find themselves stretched thinner and thinner.
Meanwhile, I have to make difficult economic choices, including not making payments on my graduate school debt despite living with family to save money. I shouldn’t have to make the choice between going broke and working for a nonprofit.
So why don’t I just leave the nonprofit sector?
The relationships I have with my older adult clients are too important. Some of them say they don’t have family, they’re immigrants without family nearby, or their close friends and family have passed away. To ask those older adults to start from zero with those new relationships every few months is not a system that works. So many of my peers have similar reasons for staying—we see this work as a calling.
Unfortunately, the city has continued to balance the budget on our backs, banking on our goodwill. While we genuinely appreciate the investment that was made by the cost of living adjustment in this budget, for too long we have been running on empty. We too are affected by the mental, emotional, and economic toll of the pandemic. Our organizations are struggling, trying to figure out how to support their employees as well as the people we serve, when they don’t have enough resources from the city to do both well.
We need help to survive, and to continue to help others and once again, our city budget came up short.