Towards the end of 2021, without a press announcement or much fanfare, Food Lifeline quietly raised its minimum wage to $25 an hour.
The move by one of the state’s largest food bank providers gave a substantial raise to more than 40% of its estimated 95-member staff and raised minimum wages to $52,000 a year. This is part of a larger initiative to improve fairness standards across the organization.
Food Lifeline CEO Linda Nageotte says they haven’t moved to a living wage for the accolades or to throw the gauntlet at other nonprofits working in social and human services. But she hopes this example can help challenge common perceptions that nonprofits have to operate on a shoestring or do more with less.
“It’s the people who are employed in this organization that make things happen,” Nageotte said. “And when we compensate them well, we have employees who can thrive both at work and at home.”
Food Lifeline – which provides food to about 350 food banks, shelters and meal programs – refused to allow The Seattle Times to speak to employees affected by the ruling, so it’s unclear how the ruling shaped the conversation. within the organization. But outside of the nonprofit, it adds to a discussion that’s happening in the homeless and social service sector in the region, as many organizations are experiencing workforce burnout, high turnover and difficulty filling vacancies two years into the pandemic.
Leaders of King County’s Homelessness Response report that labor and labor issues are causing significant delays in project timelines and sometimes even preventing projects from fully starting.
“What we really do is hire people to help other people,” said Marc Dones, CEO of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority. “And when you can’t do that, there’s no system.”
Many of the lowest paid members of social service and homeless organizations have been deemed essential during the pandemic because their jobs required them to show up in person, whether to staff homeless shelters , provide case management for people living away or, like at Food Lifeline, handle truckloads of food during a time of great need.
Before the pandemic, Food Lifeline was creating the equivalent of 90,000 meals a day. Now, due to increased need, he distributes food to prepare 282,000 meals a day.
To bring wages in King County’s homeless sector to a living wage rate, Dones said, would cost about $100 million, according to early estimates. In relation to the minimum wage, a living wage refers to the level of income a worker should receive to afford adequate housing, food, and other necessities and avoid living in poverty.
The living wage in King County for a family of four with two working adults is $24.39 per hour, according to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology living wage calculator.
This is the number that Food Lifeline decided to base their minimum wage on, and they also chose it to create more space to increase compensation in other areas, including retirement and disability coverage. charged.
“We had to choose a number that felt really meaningful and also sustainable given the other investments we intend to make,” said Megan Bergman, human resources and culture manager at Food Lifeline.
Average salaries increased by $8,500, with the highest totaling more than $10,000. About 16 employees take home more than $1,000 a month in extra pay, according to Bergman.
Human and social services assistants in Washington earn an average of $41,560 per year, or $19.98 per hour, according to data from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics as of May 2020.
“When we’re not paying,” Dones said, “not only do we have vacancies, we have incredibly high turnover.”
As of Monday, the Downtown Emergency Services Center — one of the region’s largest adult homeless service providers — had more than 150 job openings listed on its website. Currently, there are vacancies at nearly every organization funded by the Regional Homelessness Authority, Dones said.
In January, the King County Department of Community and Social Services issued a request for proposals from local homeless-serving organizations to operate a 50-bed adult shelter along Aurora Avenue in the North from Seattle.
No agency applied for the position.
“It’s a case where we have a site and funds to bring 50 people in, but the agencies that were dealing with the surge of Omicron were just trying to get through that and couldn’t consider do more at the same time,” said Leo Flor, director of the King County Department of Community and Social Services.
A common concern heard by the county, Flor said, was that staffing shortages were already straining current operations and that organizations could not afford to take on more work.
In another example, King County purchased 10 hotels and apartment buildings using a 0.1% sales tax, called Health through Housing, to provide permanent housing and temporary shelter for homeless people living in the whole county. But so far only two of the 10 hotels are in use For this reason. A third is in emergency use to provide temporary housing for Afghan refugees, while the other seven are currently vacant.
“We’ve heard directly from vendors that they wanted to take on a building but couldn’t because of the staff,” Flor added.
Even keeping existing programs running has been difficult, Dones said.
When freezing temperatures and inches of snow hit Seattle in December, Dones stopped the last shift at City Hall’s emergency weather shelter because “there was no one to do it. “, they said.
The labor crisis is also slowing the region’s spending on one-time federal emergency funds, which were intended to improve the region’s response to homelessness during the pandemic.
In 2021, Seattle and King County received approximately $26 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds to address homelessness through the American Rescue Plan Act.
“We have the funds to make historic investments in housing, shelter and rental assistance, but you can’t ask social service organizations to responsibly absorb historic levels of funding after decades of underfunding. -funding of the sector,” said Flor.
Because the sector has been so underfunded, Dones said, they’ve had to hire more people and expand the system’s capacity to handle the investment. This has created slow implementation times for many initiatives, including the distribution of over 1,300 new housing vouchers. A November 2021 Seattle Times report found that six months after receiving the increase in housing vouchers, at that time only 10 people in King County had been able to secure leases with them.
Food Lifeline’s decision to raise its minimum wage comes with some trade-offs: It’s going to cost a lot more. But for CEO Nageotte, it’s worth it.
“We don’t lose sight that this is a very important investment that we are making,” added Nageotte.
But if every worker in Washington got paychecks that gave them a living wage, Nageotte said, Food Lifeline wouldn’t need to be in business.