Op-Ed: NYC Must Address Inequality for its Human-Service Workforce

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Rob Bennett/Mayoral Photography Office.

The nonprofit sector, including the 38 settlement houses and community centers who are members of United Neighborhood Houses, has been fully engaged in participating in Mayor de Blasio’s efforts to address one of the central challenges facing our city: inequality.

Working closely with the de Blasio administration, our sector has been part of historic successes of the mayor’s first year that will make a real difference in the lives of low-income New Yorkers. These include the ongoing implementation of a truly universal Pre-Kindergarten program for four-year-olds, after-school programs that provide positive after-school experiences for middle-school students and expanded nighttime and weekend programs for teenagers in public housing developments.

Yet, the workers in nonprofit programs, the very people who are responsible day in and day out for making New York City a better place for its low-income residents, have been left out of this equation. The city needs to make more and quicker progress in ending the tale of two cities for its nonprofit human-service workforce.

The pay for many human services staff working under city contracts remains embarrassingly low. Many staff in early-childhood education, after-school, adult literacy and older adult programs struggle to make ends meet and themselves have incomes low enough to qualify for food stamps, Medicaid and child care subsidies. Others realize that, as much as they appreciate having jobs where they are able to serve their communities, they simply cannot afford to live or raise a family in New York City on the salaries that their nonprofit employers can offer. This dynamic drains the field of talented, committed individuals who for financial reasons need to seek work in fields with better salaries.

The mayor rightfully takes credit for settling 71 percent of the unresolved labor contracts he inherited from Mayor Bloomberg.  But employees of nonprofit human-services agencies working under city contracts see the progress the City has made in other sectors and continue to ask why they, too, are not deserving of the wage increases, bonuses or retroactive pay that the city’s unionized municipal workforce has received.  The leaders of nonprofit organizations have no adequate answers for their staff when they are asked these questions and often no way of convincing experienced staff members to stay in the jobs at which they excel.

The contrast is particularly stark for the staff in the child-care centers that provide early-childhood education under contracts with the New York City Administration for Children’s Services. For low-income, working families who need more hours of care than a school day program offers, ACS-contracted child care programs are the only viable option for early childhood education. Yet, the staff in these programs—whose qualifications are on par with teachers in the public schools—are paid significantly less than public-school teachers. For example, a newly certified teacher with a Master’s degree teaching a class of three-year-olds earns $16,000 less than her counterparts teaching a class of seven-year-olds in a public school. If current contracts are not changed, this disparity will grow even wider. After 15 years, the teacher in an ACS classroom for three-year-olds will be earning $30,000 less than a teacher in the public school; in fact, her salary would still be lower than the starting salary of a teacher in a Department of Education classroom.

Moreover, since New York City ended the Central Insurance Program for staff of many nonprofits, nonprofit employers have been forced to come up with their own health insurance plans—policies with employee co-pays that are too expensive for most of the staff. We now have a situation in many child care programs where more than half of the staff has opted not to purchase health insurance because they just cannot afford to cover the employee contribution.

Mayor de Blasio has the power to act to end this tale of two workforces. While his preliminary budget released on Monday did not contain funds to support more adequate compensation for the nonprofit human-services workforce, the mayor has another opportunity to do so when he presents his executive budget this spring. We call on he mayor to use his executive budget to begin to address the inadequate salaries and benefits of the nonprofit, human-services workforce. We understand the mayor cannot in one year correct a situation that has not been addressed for over a decade. But a meaningful step towards ending the neglect of the past will go a long way to help an essential but undervalued and demoralized workforce.

We are encouraged by Mr. de Blasio’s vision of a city marked by greater equality and affordability for its low-income residents. We have been and want to continue to be part of the challenging and historic work of making this vision a reality for all of New York City’s neighborhoods. For this to be done correctly, the nonprofit human-services workforce itself needs to part of this change. Nonprofits, working through government contracts, carry out essential services that New Yorkers rightly expect their City to support. The staff in nonprofit human-service agencies work hard every day to make the lives of low-income New Yorkers better.

We believe the city must act to ensure that their salary and benefits reflect their value and the mayor’s values.

* * * *Nancy Wackstein 2014Gregory Brender Picture

Nancy Wackstein is the executive director and Gregory Brender is the deputy director for NYC policy & advocacy at United Neighborhood Houses.

  • abused and underpaid NYC worke

    Human Service Workers are paid MORE than NYC Human Resources Administration and we serve a larger population and the REFERRAL of Human Service Workers and are ABUSED by the population we serve daily!! This must be addressed before any other Agency, non-profits or anything else!!