Gotham Gazette

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They Provide Essential City Services. They Deserve More

a ribbon cutting

Providing city services (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

As COVID-19 swept across our city, nonprofit human services workers were a beacon of hope, providing a safe haven for New Yorkers from all walks of life. While others were told to stay home, these workers--who are predominantly women and people of color--were deemed essential and showed up in public-facing roles to help carry New Yorkers through an unprecedented crisis. They provided assistance to those who found themselves newly in need of access to food, shelter, and other supportive services. They put their health and that of their families at risk by prioritizing the wellbeing of our communities.

Their reward for these selfless personal sacrifices? The city froze their wages in the middle of the pandemic.

The human services workforce has been toiling under city-contracted poverty wages since long before the devastating effects of COVID-19. These organizations deliver services through government contracts that are drastically underfunded, which results in alarmingly low wages. The average annual income for human services workers in New York City is only $32,700. This makes the human services sector the second-lowest paid sector of all industries in the city, only after the restaurant industry. Despite being highly educated, over 60% of human services workers in our city qualify for public assistance. That means they’re often forced to rely on the same services they provide to others.

It’s not just an issue of decency for the workers themselves. Low pay makes it difficult for nonprofits to attract talented workers and results in frequent turnover, which ultimately hurts the quality of services available to those in need. Given the makeup of the workforce and the communities they serve, this is a key issue of racial equity.

In acknowledgement of these issues, the city provided these workers with a three-year cost of living adjustment in the 2018 budget. But when that expired last summer, the COLA was not renewed—leaving wages for essential workers on the frontlines of COVID-19 stagnant. We recognize that last year’s budget was strained and forced tough decisions related to many sectors, but budgets are a statement of our city’s values. What does it say to our constituents when jobs that police and incarcerate our communities’ residents make over twice as much as those that support our constituents with social services?  

The federal stimulus money available this year is an opportunity to transform this system and ensure we are fully valuing the labor of women and people of color who support our communities. It is long past time for New York City to appropriately invest in essential human service workers, whom we all rely so heavily on by finally paying them fair wages under city contracts.

We are calling for the city to restore this sector’s COLA in the fiscal year 2022 budget, due by July 1 of this year, at a rate of at least 3%—an investment of $48 million. That is the bare minimum that we can provide for the chronically overworked and underpaid human services workforce. If we trust nonprofit workers to deliver vital services on the government’s behalf then we must respect them enough to pay them a living wage.

Nonprofit human services organizations will continue to be essential for New York’s  post-pandemic recovery. City Hall talks about an equitable path forward. That will require the support of nonprofit workers providing job training, tutoring for kids left behind by remote schooling, sheltering those who will be at risk of homelessness during the looming eviction crisis and more. These workers continued to serve our city through the darkest days of the pandemic; now it’s our turn to show up for them. We let them down last year, but this is our chance to reset.

by the members of the New York City Council's Progressive Caucus and Women's Caucus. On Twitter @NYCProgressives & @WomensCaucusNYC.

Progressive Caucus
Ben Kallos (Co-Chair), Diana Ayala (Co-Chair), Keith Powers (Vice Co-Chair), Carlos Menchaca (Vice Co-Chair), Margaret S. Chin, Carlina Rivera, Corey Johnson, Helen Rosenthal, Mark Levine, Bill Perkins, Ydanis Rodriguez, Jimmy Van Bramer, I. Daneek Miller, Adrienne E. Adams, Stephen T. Levin, Antonio Reynoso, Brad Lander, Alicka Ampry-Samuel, Justin Brannan, Deborah Rose.

Women’s Caucus
Vanessa L. Gibson (Co-Chair), Farah N. Louis (Co-Chair), Margaret S. Chin, Carlina Rivera, Helen Rosenthal, Diana Ayala, Adrienne E. Adams, Karen Koslowitz, Laurie A. Cumbo, Darma V. Diaz, Alicka Ampry-Samuel, Inez Barron, Deborah Rose.

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