In 2019, then-Councilmember Bruce Harrell voted with the entire Seattle City Council to make sure that wages keep up with inflation for people who provide front-line care to homeless people and other vulnerable populations. The hope was to slow the high level of turnover that stymies progress on getting people the services they need to move into housing or other care.

Harrell even added an amendment expressing the city’s intention to fund the full wage increase “in both periods of economic growth and in periods of economic hardship.”

The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is funded by BECU, Campion Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Seattle Foundation and the University of Washington. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over Project Homeless content.

But now inflation is high, at 7.6%, and Harrell proposed Tuesday limiting those wage increases to 4% in 2023 and all future budgets.

Harrell’s proposal is being called tone-deaf by nonprofits that say their workers are either living in poverty or leaving the field. Several City Council members agree that the mayor is trying to cut costs in the wrong places.

The measure came tucked inside the mayor’s budget proposal, in which he highlighted new funding to expand shelter capacity toward his promise of delivering 2,000 additional emergency housing units in his first year of office.

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The city’s budget director Julie Dingley told council members in a budget committee meeting Wednesday that the caps on service worker wage increases would save the city $7.15 million this year and $12.12 million the following year. Many departments face stagnating or reduced budgets this year after the city ran out of $128 million in one-time federal coronavirus relief funding. 

“This decision was particularly difficult,” Dingley said. “We know that human service providers do some of the most difficult and meaningful work in the city.”

Service providers say expansion can only come if there are enough people to staff the existing homelessness system. Currently, there are not.

“You can’t do more when the core is being eaten away,” said Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness.

Eisinger, whose organization is made up of nonprofits and others who are paid by the city to provide services, said this would essentially be a pay cut for workers. She worries it would drive people away from the field at a time when there are “enormous numbers of vacant positions,” an issue that existed before the pandemic but rose to the forefront during it. 

The Downtown Emergency Service Center, one of the region’s largest homelessness service providers, has 193 open positions on its website. The Low Income Housing Institute has 95, and Catholic Charity Services has 86. Not all of these positions are funded by the city of Seattle.

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Service providers have been asking officials for wage increases for years and say tying them to inflation is the bare minimum. 

The King County Regional Homelessness Authority has pushed for higher wages for service providers since CEO Marc Dones was hired last year. The organization has prioritized its funds to achieve that internally, paying its employees sometimes twice as much as the nonprofit organizations it contracts can afford to pay theirs. 

A 13% wage increase for all contracted workers was one of Dones’ top asks in the authority’s most recent budget request, which Harrell turned down in his proposal. The authority declined to comment on Harrell’s proposal to cap wage increases.

Many of these jobs are mentally and physically taxing jobs. For instance, people with little training or expertise work in shelters providing care to people with hair-trigger trauma responses from years on the street, past abuses, mental health issues or substance use disorder. Many jobs pay about $40,000 per year.

In a budget committee meeting Wednesday, leaders of several major homelessness and human service providers like YouthCare, Plymouth Housing and Southwest Youth and Family Services told council members that their employees are living in poverty.

“It’s unacceptable that workers working 24 hours a day with people in crisis are unstably housed themselves,” said Jessie Friedmann, director of public policy at YouthCare, which she said has a 70% staff turnover rate. 

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The constant churn means the youth homelessness nonprofit has available beds that they can’t fill and help they can’t provide because there aren’t enough staff members.

“Our clients need them more than ever,” Friedmann said.

On Friday, Harrell released a statement in response.

“Mayor Harrell welcomes collaboration with the Council to support these critically important workers now, and also recognizes that meaningful long-term improvement will require comprehensive and ongoing solutions,” the statement said.

Teresa Mosqueda, the council’s budget chair and sponsor of the 2019 law, said the city cannot maintain a workforce of human service providers when “they themselves are qualifying for food assistance, and they themselves are living unhoused in our city because they are so underpaid.” 

She proposed to pay for the full wage increases as mandated by the 2019 bill using some of the higher than anticipated revenues from the city’s JumpStart tax. JumpStart is a progressive tax, collected for the first time in 2021, on large businesses with employees making more than $150,000 intended to be used for affordable housing, Green New Deal initiatives, local business assistance and equitable development. However, Mosqueda said that using the revenue to prevent austerity and cuts to essential government programs is something the bill’s original supporters have indicated they’re in favor of.

Councilmember Lisa Herbold also said that the mayor’s proposal would “result in our inability to meet mission-critical objectives” by exacerbating staffing shortages, and Councilmember Andrew Lewis also said he wanted to raise service workers’ wages by more than 4%.

King County has been struggling with the same problems. As it tries to open up the hotels it has purchased through its Health Through Housing program to house homeless people, officials say they can’t find enough workers to staff them.

King County does not provide “noticeable increases” in wages tied to inflation for this group of workers like the city does, according to Seattle budget director Dingley. Spokesperson Kelly Rider said many of the county’s human services programs are federally funded outside of the county’s control and often do not include inflationary wage increases in that pot of money. She said the county is working to add inflationary adjustments where it can, spending millions of dollars in the next year to address the service worker shortage.