Over the past few months, conventional wisdom has emerged asserting that the U.S. is experiencing a labor shortage.

A headline in Fortune on Friday read, “Where are all the workers, and when are they coming back?” Countless articles have lamented the “great resignation” facing the U.S. workforce and theorized over the causes. Some attribute it to expanded pandemic unemployment benefits, but research does not bear that out as the driving cause.

Now, a new idea is emerging, and one that could have a significant effect on economic justice and wealth inequality for future generations: there is not a labor shortage as much as people are no longer willing to take low-paying jobs in which they cannot earn a living wage.

As Alana Semuels wrote in Time, “ … what’s really happening is more accurately described as a living-wage shortage, a hazard pay shortage, a childcare shortage, a paid sick leave shortage, and a health care shortage.”

One local nonprofit decided to do something about it.

About a week ago, Choose 180, a Burien-based youth diversion nonprofit, raised all its staff salaries to a minimum of $70,000 a year. For some of the organization’s 24 staff, the pay hikes amounted to a $20,000 annual raise in an instant, using existing funds. The increases added about $400,000 to its 2022 budget, Executive Director Sean Goode said, an amount the board supported unanimously. He was confident he would be able to fundraise to support the change going forward.

But the decision didn’t happen overnight. Goode said that when staff first suggested changing the pay structure months ago, he initially balked. 

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“Until I had one of my team members kind of call me on the carpet about it, I didn’t realize how bad things were [financially] for some of our team members,” he said. Goode said he had been seduced into thinking that this is just how it was in the nonprofit world. He started at a large nonprofit making next to nothing and then worked his way up, so what was the problem?

But as he talked to more staff and listened to their struggles, his perspective shifted. Some staff members were working multiple jobs to survive. One director reminded him that the philosophy of Choose 180 was that the living conditions of the young people they worked with needed to change in order for them to have a fighting chance to live beyond what he called the disease of violence and the stress of poverty. Could it be that they were paying their own team members to live in the same conditions? Goode said the conversation was a “gut punch” that sparked a transformation. 

“We live in the richest country in the world. And we live in one of the richest places in the country. We are constantly talking about a housing crisis. Meanwhile, paying people at rates that leave them one paycheck away from being unhoused,” he said. “We can’t continue to only address those who are living on the street today, we have to also address those that are working hard today, but are one paycheck away because they’re failing to make a living wage.”

This board in the Choose 180 office in Burien is where many leave affirmations of their life changes. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

Durell Green, Choose 180’s community navigator, knows that struggle. When he started in the nonprofit world at a different organization, he said he took a big pay cut but wanted to do work he believed in. But for those first years, he didn’t have his own place to stay and sometimes had to live in his car. 

“I’m literally getting awards for community service and stuff and I have no place to put those plaques. There’s no wall to put them up on. That’s the reality,” Green said.

Green said it doesn’t just impact the staff themselves, it also sends a message to the young people they serve. “It’s difficult when you’re out there serving the youth, and you’re trying to provide them better alternatives,” Green said. “But they can look at your lifestyle and be like, ‘I don’t want to be like you when I grow up.’ ”

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Rebecca Thornton was one of the staff members Goode talked to when he was trying to understand the scope of the wage problem. Thornton is the organization’s office manager and bookkeeper and a single mom who is studying accounting. She said that when Goode asked her if she had a savings account or could save for a house, she laughed.

Before coming to Choose 180, she was working three jobs and still barely making it. The stress and insecurity of that time still haunts her. She said even working six or seven days a week, she still had to rely on help from others for food and Christmas presents.

“I’m hoping this bleeds into other organizations and future generations because no one deserves to work multiple jobs,” she said. “I missed out on a lot of my kid’s firsts because I was working.”

Now, she can see staying at Choose 180 for the long haul, knowing she can support her family and even think about buying a house or donating to causes she supports.

While the Choose 180 pay hike might seem dramatic, it shouldn’t. According to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator, a parent like Thornton would need to make just shy of $76,000 to live in King County.

Yet according to a recent story in The Seattle Times on the struggle for homelessness nonprofits to find workers, the starting pay at one large Seattle nonprofit that serves people experiencing homelessness is just around $18 an hour for front-line staff, or about $37,000 a year. In September the agency had over 140 openings.

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Goode is under no illusions about the challenges ahead to improve pay and change the culture of taking a “pledge of poverty” to work in the nonprofit sector. But you have to start somewhere. “What I do know is it takes one person to step up, step out, and do it loudly for other people to pay attention,” he said.

Then, he said, the next time an agency is writing a grant for funding, instead of putting in a request for $37,000 for front-line staff, they might put in $70,000, and that starts the culture shift.

“Look, if a Black-led nonprofit — with a board that’s made up of primarily people of color, with a staff team that’s largely comprised of people of color — can do it, then in this largely white-dominant culture, anybody should be able to do it,” Goode said. “So it’s not a question of ability. It’s a question of will.”