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On the brink of homelessness, Seattle social workers fight for raises

Human service provider contractors flood city city hall on June 6, 2019, calling for new contracts that adjust for inflation. (City of Seattle)

Tangled up in Seattle’s homelessness crisis is the massive turnover rate among case workers. Some say their lousy pay puts them on the brink of homelessness, and forces them to leave the job.

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“We do this because we believe that everybody should have a home,” said Paul Rosenthal, program manager at Plymouth Housing. “But, a lot of us are afraid of losing our own. We could easily join the ranks of people who don’t have homes.”

Rosenthal runs a team of six case managers who make slightly above Seattle’s $15 minimum wage. Each averages a case load of about 25 clients. Turnover is common.

“Without improved wages for staff retention, my team occasionally falls down to five people or four people,” said Rosenthal. “It creates a lot of challenges for the folks we try to serve and for the staff who remain at Plymouth.”

Seattle’s Human Services Department will spend about $118 million in 2020 on provider contracts. The city allocates the funding to about 170 agencies, including non-profits that work directly with the city’s homeless population. The agencies also receive county, state, and federal funding along with private donations.

Councilwoman Teresa Mosqueda believes more city funding is needed to offset rising business costs and increase pay for social service workers.

“We feel we’ve fallen down on these obligations,” said Mosqueda, as she rolled out her newly proposed legislation. The measure would require Human Services to include an annual increase to renegotiated or renewed contracts. The raises would come from the city’s general fund and be based on federal inflation rates. In 2020, that could mean a 2.4 percent increase.

“Without the front-line human service providers, we cannot provide the critical services to our most vulnerable in the community,” said Mosqueda. “Without adequate funding, the workers and the organizations face tremendous burdens on a daily basis.”

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Seattle’s case managers have been flooding city hall recently, voicing frustration over low salaries and staffing shortages. Some said they live in low-income housing or qualify for some of the same services as their clients. They’ve seen their peers quit after a year or even less.

“We have a really hard time getting employees. Our turnover rate is at 44 percent,” said Evelyn Correa, chief human resources officer at YouthCare, a non-profit working to end Youth Homelessness.

Correa said YouthCare can afford to pay their most qualified case managers – those who have master’s degrees — about $40,000 a year.

“I totally get that the market determines the value of work,” said Correa. “However, we can’t afford to have people come in and do this work poorly.”

YouthCare and other social service agencies might see the extra funding as early as the next budget cycle. The city council could vote on the new contract rules next month.

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