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Hiking the Minimum Wage (and Living To Tell About It)


photo by Michael Fleshman
photo by Michael Fleshman

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This month’s post is written by a staff member at a local DV/SA agency who wishes to remain anonymous.

My goal in writing is to urge us to critically think about how our efforts at promoting social and economic justice can have unintended consequences.  The State of Washington is considering a minimum wage hike, as are a few individual cities. I’ll get to more on this in a moment, but here’s my story.

I work at a domestic violence and sexual assault agency that is part of a much larger, diverse organization populated by programs with unequal funding sources and different requirements for service provision. My program in particular is struggling financially due to the loss of DV/SA grant funding. When planning this year’s budget with my finance director, we based the final budget not only on the funding realities we faced but also with the knowledge that the entire organization was facing a major increase in health insurance benefit costs.

On top of increased health insurance costs and loss of funding, my agency implemented both a COLA (Cost of Living Adjustment) and a step increase. We learned in late December (and of course after we had established our budget) that those increases would go into effect January 1, 2014. Because we are all on the same salary structure, my program could not elect to exempt our staff from this salary increase. And unlike for-profit businesses that can pass rising costs onto their consumers by increasing the price of their products, we do not charge for our services by law, by design, and by principle.

For us, this meant that we needed to decrease our costs immediately. But how? The vast majority of our budget goes to salaries and benefits. All of our services require people: providing shelter and legal advocacy services, , assisting survivors with transportation and childcare, , providing advocacy-based counseling, coordinating systems on their behalf, and documenting it all. We had already trimmed our operating costs to the bare minimum by reducing our office space and eliminating any extraneous expenses. When there were no other costs to cut, only salaries and benefits were left.

I considered three options. First, I could require every staff member to take 18 furlough days per year. Second, I could lay off a single full-time person. Last, I could move the full-time staff to part-time at 38 hours per week. The cost of these lost hours closely mirrored their pay increase, which meant their take-home pay would stay the same (and cost them much less than 18 furlough days). We would also only lose fourteen hours per week of staff time rather than forty. However, three of our staff would lose paid health insurance benefits for their families. After considering all the angles, it seemed like there was only one practical option: to reduce full-time staff’s hours to 38 per week.. And so it went.

I lost a lot of sleep over this.

It is difficult to devote your life to promoting social justice and then find yourself doing something you never imagined – and to people about whom you care. It wasn’t fair, it wasn’t right, but it was our reality. And our reality can change when we work to build a better future. I need to work with my organization and my community to find ways to do just that.

Before December I would have been completely on board with the minimum wage hike proposals. However, the effect of a sudden increase in costs on our program gives me pause.

My concern is about whether or not the act of increasing the minimum wage will by itself truly move us toward social and economic justice. If human service organizations have no immediate way to make up for their increased costs except by decreasing staff – and thereby their level of service provision – then what will have been accomplished? Human services are desperately needed by the people we serve. So what can we do? Ideas I have considered are as follows:

  • Allow non-profit and human service organizations to implement minimum wage increases over time.
  • Continually support legislation and policies that address bloated healthcare costs and inefficiencies in our health care and health insurance systems.
  • Encourage the government to commit to funding us like they do other federal programs. I consider DV/SA and other human service programs to be a hybrid of FEMA and the CDC. Like FEMA we address social hurricanes and tornadoes, and defunding us would be like defunding FEMA. AND we are like the CDC, working to promote public health by addressing DV/SA/other social problems not only a case at a time but with our prevention programs. Our work is vital to our communities.

That may not be much, but it’s a start. What do you think? How are you handling similar situations?


One thought on “Hiking the Minimum Wage (and Living To Tell About It)

  1. When I worked as a crisis counselor at a domestic violence shelter, our positions were the lowest of the agency’s levels. We received a starting wage of $8.25, with a quarter annual raise, and a bonus if there was a surplus from the shelter budget. In return we got 12 paid vacation days, 10 holiday days (which we could choose to work on and get time and a half), two personal days, and six paid sick days.

    If any of the personal or sick days were not used by the end of the year they would be lost. Similarly, to your example, none of us worked over 36 hours, and when we needed coverage we called from a list of a dozen part-time workers who received a dollar less than we did. Between the counselors working essentially part-time, and the actual part-time people working nearly as much for less, it kept costs down.

    As the millennium drew forth, and welfare dismantled, our client numbers grew and the job description, as well as title, was amended to enable hiring of people with more limited formal education and doubled tasks. The onslaught of troubled women and their multiple issues (AODA, behavioral and mental health disorders), became more taxing of counselors’ time – a title changed to “shelter worker.”

    Most of the women who worked these positions were married, divorced, or widowed with settlements. It was impossible for a single woman living on her own to make due with this pay, and the few who were had second jobs. The trouble then, and more so now, is that our government is not placing enough concern on the importance of aiding abused women – many of which have their jobs disrupted – and their children.

    Secondly, agencies with ample administration and other professional positions (therapists, career and housing specialists, along with directors), allocate the majority of funds on these positions since there is a more competitive demand for them. The government needs to take more responsibility to aid social ills that cause women to lose, or have gaps in work, and we, as advocates and activists, need to hold them accountable rather than risk low morale and infighting.

    At this time in history, we should not have to consider whether we are worth a living wage or if it’s possible, much less sacrifice it. We are rationalizing against ourselves or, worse, making that decision for millions of others.

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