Those of us suggesting a balanced, thoughtful and timely approach to raising the minimum wage have been attacked and vilified. Some have said, “You should just raise wages and do the right thing,” as if we didn’t want to. Of course we want to pay our people more. They provide a vital service to our most vulnerable residents who choose to live in the community instead of an institution.
If raising wages were simple we would have done it long ago.And if raising wages were simple we would have done it long ago. We have closely monitored contracts to deliver a service by the hour and cannot reduce service hours to pay higher wages.
At our agency alone, we are looking at many positions in largely state- and county-funded programs with a smattering of small foundation grants and individual donations to support our critical community based work with individuals and families. Individual and foundation donors generally cannot be counted on to fund wages that must be sustained over many years.
We try to keep a little ahead of the competition in our service sector. We evaluate our wages and benefits annually as part of our budgeting process and every dollar we can allocate to staff is allocated.
Indeed, 86 percent of our budget goes to staff wages, taxes and benefits. Currently we offer a very generous benefits package that we are not required to provide, with high-value medical insurance and a low deductible to reduce out-of-pocket expenses for our employees and a generous paid time-off benefit. It is, however, a fixed pot of money and we can only move the pieces around. All of these benefits would be put into question if we are forced to raise wages beyond our current means.
To get to $15 immediately, my agency would need another nearly half a million dollars annually. It is also not possible to raise one level of worker without raising the wages of those at other points on the pay scale including supervisors who are experienced and are more highly-skilled, and may be receiving salaries very close to $15. So we must address the entire work force’s compensation. To get to $15 immediately, my agency would need another nearly half a million dollars annually.
Believe me, we would love to have this money to raise our highly-skilled and deserving workers’ wages. To those who say, “Just raise wages,” we ask “Where will this money come from?” Perhaps now the voters of Washington would allow for tax increases to support the vast, statewide nonprofit network that serves children, seniors and people with disabilities. So far, taxpayers have not been so inclined.
Perhaps the groups pushing for an instant wage fix would consider first running an initiative to raise taxes so the hundreds of nonprofits that do this critical work in our communities can receive sustainable vendor rates that support the wages proposed. You can help us by fighting to raise taxes while allowing the government time to allocate these resources and raise everyone up at the same time. Don’t simply carve out non-profits and leave us paying sub-par wages for extraordinary work. Don’t incite our workers to leave us.
Sylvia Fuerstenberg is the executive director of The Arc of King County, a group that advocates for the rights of people in King County with intellectual and developmental disabilities.