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.

Near the end of 2021, without a press announcement or much fuss, Food Lifeline quietly raised its minimum wage to $25 an hour.

The decision by one of the largest food bank providers in the state gave a substantial raise to more than 40% of its estimated 95-member staff and increased minimum salaries to $52,000 a year. It’s part of a larger initiative to improve equity standards across the organization.

Food Lifeline’s CEO, Linda Nageotte, says they didn’t move to a livable wage for the praise or to throw down the gauntlet for other nonprofits working in social and human services. But she hopes that the example can help challenge common perceptions that nonprofits need to operate on a shoestring budget or do more with less. 

“It’s the people that are employed at this organization that make it go,” Nageotte said. “And when we compensate them well, we have employees who are able to thrive both at work and at home.” 

Food Lifeline — which supplies food to around 350 food banks, shelters and meal programs — declined to allow The Seattle Times to speak with employees impacted by the decision, so it’s hard to know how this move has steered the conversation within the organization. But outside of the nonprofit, it adds to a discussion happening across the region’s homeless and social services sector as many organizations are experiencing workforce burnout, high turnover and trouble filling open positions two years into the pandemic.    

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Leaders of King County’s response to homelessness are reporting that workforce and labor issues are causing major delays in project timelines and sometimes even preventing projects from starting altogether. 

“What we really do, right, is we hire people to help other people,” said Marc Dones, CEO of King County’s Regional Homelessness Authority. “And when you can’t do that, there is no system.” 

Many of the lowest-paid members of social and homeless service organizations were deemed essential during the pandemic as their work required them to show up in person whether to staff homeless shelters, offer case management to people living outside or, like at Food Lifeline, process truckloads of food during a time of great need.

Before the pandemic, Food Lifeline created the equivalent of 90,000 meals a day. Now, due to increased need, it distributes food to make 282,000 meals per day.

To bring wages across King County’s homelessness sector to a living wage rate, Dones said, would cost around $100 million, according to early estimates. Compared with minimum wage, a living wage refers to an income level a worker would need to receive to afford adequate shelter, food and other necessities and avoid living in poverty. 

The living wage in King County for a family of four with both adults working comes to $24.39 an hour, according to a living wage calculator by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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That’s the figure that Food Lifeline decided to base their minimum wage on, and they also chose that to build in more room to grow compensation in other areas, including retirement and dependent coverage.

“We needed to pick a number that felt really meaningful and also sustainable given the other investments that we intend to make,” said Megan Bergman, chief people and culture officer for Food Lifeline.    

Average wages grew by $8,500 with the highest totaling more than $10,000. Around 16 employees are bringing home more than $1,000 a month in additional pay, according to Bergman.

Social and human service assistants in Washington earn an average of $41,560 annually, or $19.98 an hour, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as of May 2020. 

“When we don’t pay,” Dones said, “not only do we have vacancies, but we have incredibly high turnover.”

On Monday, the Downtown Emergency Service 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 almost every single organization the Regional Homelessness Authority funds, Dones said.

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In January, King County’s Department of Community and Human Services put out a request for proposal from local homeless service organizations to operate a 50-bed shelter for adults along Aurora Avenue in North Seattle.

No agencies applied for the job. 

“This is a case where we have a site and funds to bring 50 people inside, but agencies who were dealing with the Omicron surge were just trying to make it through that period and couldn’t look at doing more at the same time,” said Leo Flor, director of King County’s Department of Community and Human Services.

A common concern the county heard, Flor said, was that staffing shortages were already straining current operations and organizations couldn’t afford to take on more work. 

In another example, King County has purchased 10 hotels and apartment buildings through a 0.1% sales tax, called Health through Housing, to provide permanent housing and temporary shelter to homeless people living across the county. But so far, only two of the 10 hotels are being used for that purpose. A third is under emergency use to provide temporary housing to Afghan refugees, while the remaining seven currently sit vacant. 

“We have heard from providers directly that they want to take on a building but can’t because of staffing,” Flor added. 

Even keeping existing programs running has been difficult, said Dones. 

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When freezing cold temperatures and inches of snow hit Seattle in December, Dones pulled the final shift at the emergency weather shelter at City Hall because “there was no one to do it,” they said.

The labor crisis is also slowing down the region’s spending of one-time emergency federal dollars, which were intended to improve the region’s homelessness response during the pandemic. 

In 2021, Seattle and King County received around $26 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds to combat homelessness through the American Rescue Plan Act.

“We have the funds to make historic investments in housing, shelter, and rent assistance, but you can’t call upon human services organizations to responsibly absorb historic levels of funding after decades of underfunding the sector,” Flor said. 

Because the sector has been so underfunded, Dones said, they had to hire more people and grow system capacity to handle the investment. It’s created slow implementation timelines for many initiatives, including the distribution of more than 1,300 new housing vouchers. A Seattle Times report in November 2021 found that six months after receiving the surge in housing vouchers, at that time only 10 people in King County had been able to obtain leases with them.   

Food Lifeline’s decision to increase its minimum wage comes with some trade-offs: it’s going to cost substantially more. But to CEO Nageotte, it’s worth it.

“It is not lost on us that this is a very significant investment that we are making,” Nageotte added. 

But if every worker in Washington received paychecks that gave them a living wage, Nageotte said, Food Lifeline wouldn’t need to be in business.