On the Frontlines of a Crisis
Updated: Oct 2, 2020
May 5, 2020
Soon after the first Shelter-In-Place order took effect, I helped a woman, let’s call her Dorothy, with her rental assistance case. Her income was over $90,000 annually, although it was about to be reduced because her employer had cut her hours in the wake of the pandemic. Even her reduced salary was higher than mine and higher than that of most of the people I work with. Dorothy was in a tricky situation because her housing was very expensive and she was a single mom to two children, so I was glad to be able to help her pay her April rent. Most of the clients I assist are not like Dorothy -- they are housekeepers, landscapers, and restaurant workers who struggle to get by even when there is no global pandemic. However, Dorothy’s case made me stop and think.
In February, a time that seems like ancient history, the nonprofit where I work held a Strategic Planning retreat. Staff and board members were invited to envision what the next 3-5 years would look like. Little did we know that the world would change so completely in the following 3-5 weeks! At that retreat, a major topic was staff salaries. Staff member after staff member stood up and shared their stories. There were people working 2-3 jobs because they couldn’t pay their bills otherwise. It’s hard to imagine providing case management to homeless people all day, clocking out, and then clocking into a job at a fast food restaurant, but that’s what case managers do to survive. There were people commuting 90 minutes each way every day so they could afford housing. Most upsetting to me is that there were staff members whose salaries are so low, they rely on the nonprofit where we work for basic services like groceries.
Employees where I work and at nonprofits around the country are literally putting our lives on the line every day while many can barely afford to live. Society is cheering for medical personnel and grocery clerks, but what about those of us in social services? We are passing out bags of food to homeless people, explaining how to apply for rental assistance to unemployed service workers, and providing lunch to the elderly. And in some situations, like Dorothy’s, helping those in far better circumstances than we find ourselves.
Why are salaries so low? A large portion of our funding comes from grants and government contracts where salaries are written in at very low levels. The funders expect us to pay our employees far less than they would accept for any of their own staff members. What happens if we push back? We don’t get those grants and contracts and we can’t pay our staff at all. This is not a problem that nonprofits can fix. Leadership must come from organizations that contract with nonprofits.
Who are the people who take these low-paying jobs? People who don’t have the skills to do anything else? Absolutely not. The people I work with are organized, effective, flexible, caring, and strong leaders. Many have highly sought-after language skills. Most importantly, they are committed to helping others. It takes a special kind of person to wake up and go to work every day knowing that they have a long commute and a difficult caseload ahead, and can barely afford lunch. Funders take advantage of the desire these people have to help others to pay them less.
I’m calling on foundations and government agencies: You can do better. This is no way to treat people who are risking their lives on the frontlines right now and even under normal circumstances do a very challenging job. Please treat those working in social services as you would want to be treated yourself. And for those who want to know what you can do to help: donate unrestricted funds to your local nonprofit so that your donations can be used to pay staff salaries. We need all the support we can get.