When Wanda Louis first began her job managing the lives of families in the child welfare system, she carried a maximum of 12 cases. There was more than enough work to be done in the go-to role she played in families’ lives following allegations of child maltreatment: Attending court hearings alongside her clients, conducting home visits in the Bronx, Queens and Manhattan and scheduling virtual conferences with foster parents.
Working as a case planner for the last three years for Sheltering Arms Children and Family Services was stressful and challenging, well before each new variant of COVID-19 struck. Then her colleagues started getting sick, resisting vaccine mandates and leaving for better-paying government jobs.
“Because we were losing people and also there were more cases coming in, I had up to like 20 children,” she said.
As more case planners left Sheltering Arms — an agency serving 15,000 children, youth and families — Louis said she’s had to reassure parents who’ve told her they feel “tossed around.” One family had been assigned to work with 10 different workers, known as case planners. Stepping into each new family’s life, she said she’d had to uncover their history anew, earn their trust, understand their needs and undo any previous damage to their prospects for reunion with children in foster care.
Workers such as Louis are at the heart of an ongoing battle for greater public investment in the nonprofit sector. A study of nonprofits released last June by the Human Services Council — which represents 170 social service organizations in New York City — reported vacancy rates higher than 15% for more than 30% of the nonprofits surveyed.
Leaders of social services agencies who spoke to The Imprint said over the past few months, they’ve seen this rate increase to as high as 40%.
“Somebody comes to us for a couple of months, we do the whole hiring thing. Day two, they don’t show up,” said Kimberly Hardy Watson, president and CEO of Graham Windham Services for Children and Families, who has worked at the Brooklyn-based agency providing child welfare and juvenile justice services for 11 years. “It is really the kind of behavior I’ve never seen before.”
The numbers reveal the divide: The annual salary for a full-time case planner at Graham Windham is $41,000, according to a job posting on Indeed.com advertising for “multiple Case Planner vacancies in Brooklyn, Harlem and The Bronx.” Workers in similar posts with the city’s Administration for Children’s Services, in contrast, earn almost $60,000.
Last year, well before anyone had ever heard of omicron, 80% of city nonprofits reported that “inadequate pay significantly impacted their organization’s ability” to hire. Under government contracts, “salaries start low and often remain stagnant,” the report concluded, leading to a flight of workers from nonprofits due to “inadequate opportunities for career advancement, inadequate benefits, and high caseloads.”
Nonprofit leaders say delayed and inadequate government funding for contractors, and a failure to provide for cost-of-living raises has made finding and retaining a sufficient workforce a desperate struggle in recent years, even as emergency pandemic funds were distributed from Albany and Washington, D.C.
“Nonprofits rose to the occasion of the pandemic but will not survive unless something changes. It is not sustainable, and it has left them on the brink,” the report produced by a local management consulting firm stated. “Human services were a lifeline to communities during the peak of COVID-19 and they will be essential for New York to achieve an equitable post-pandemic recovery.”
In November, New York City council members passed their version of a solution to the pay problem: A law making it easier for nonprofit workers to form unions.
Local Law 87, introduced by New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson on the eve of his departure to run for comptroller, requires city human services contractors to enter into agreements with labor unions within 90 days of receiving or amending a city contract. The law is far-reaching, covering contracts with providers of day care, foster care, home care, health and medical services, housing and shelter assistance, youth programs, senior centers, employment training and assistance, vocational, educational and recreational programs, as well as legal representation. Contractors must now provide documentation of a labor agreement, or proof that no labor organization has sought to represent their employees.
Johnson, a member of the city council for eight years, has received campaign backing from the city’s largest municipal union, District Council 37. He said in a statement released by the union that his legislation aims to improve the working conditions of the nonprofit, social and human services sector who “face dangerous working conditions, rising health care costs, low pay and extremely high turnover.”
The bill, Johnson stated, grants “over 200,000 of our city’s essential human services workers the right to organize for the pay and benefits they deserve without fear of retaliation or punishment or interference from their employers.”
But late last month, the trade group representing nonprofit leaders sued to block Law 87, which took effect Nov. 16. In court documents filed in a Manhattan federal court, lawyers for the Human Services Council allege that the law passed last year “cedes control over the City of New York’s social services to union leaders, period.”
Other solutions are called for in Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul’s budget proposal for the state. In it, she calls on the Legislature to approve a $500 million cost-of-living increase for all human services contractors. The budget item has yet to be approved by lawmakers but has been met with enthusiasm among nonprofit leaders and others in the field.
“Governor Hochul is making clear that she values the role human services workers play in lifting up all New Yorkers and that she is committed to addressing this long-standing problem,” Michelle Jackson, executive director of the Human Services Council said in a written statement.
Newly inaugurated Mayor Eric Adams has weighed in about his sympathies, but has yet to detail a specific proposal.
In a New York Daily News op-ed published last December after Adams had been elected, he described the “essential, life-saving services” that nonprofits provided to New Yorkers in every neighborhood as the pandemic wore on: “they fed newly hungry neighbors, helped people access health services, supported children through trauma and assisted with millions of applications for emergency relief.”
Adams noted that “an overwhelming majority of those workers are women and people of color, who are often paid far less than their private or public sector counterparts. Meanwhile, the organizations that employ them struggle to keep their heads above water with unstable income, constrained resources and rising commercial rents.”
Yet under the current labor crunch, said Sharmeela Mediratta, vice president and chief advocacy officer for Graham Windham, managers are filling in for frontline workers, often with little knowledge of the family’s story.
In these scenarios, clients are the ones to suffer, Mediratta added, having to repeat the circumstances that led to child maltreatment reports — situations that typically involve emotional duress, abuse of substances, domestic violence and mental illness.
“I can go fill in for someone, but in order to be the most helpful, I need to sort of understand your story again,” she said. “One of the things that our families have been complaining to us about for some time, but it’s certainly been exacerbated this year, is that they’re telling their story to too many different people.”
Most organizations surveyed last year reported staff leaving nonprofits to take government jobs for better salaries and benefits. Almost three-fourths said it was “somewhat or very common for staff to leave for government jobs.”
Nonprofit leaders cited a “perverse trend,” describing how low rates of pay for government contractors drive turnover at nonprofits, “while higher pay for government workers draws them away from human services organizations.”
Hardy Watson said resignation letters keep coming in to her agency which is unable to raise wages, offer incentives or offer comparable benefits. “We’re talking about trying to tap into what is already a very limited pool. We’re not going to attract them in the ways that the city or the state can,” she said. “This is really critical, it’s really a crisis at this point.”
Nonprofit leaders maintain that the city is capable of bridging the pay gap.
In October, their Human Services Council launched its “#JustPay” campaign, calling on the Adams administration to create an automatic annual cost of living adjustment for all human services contracts and to set a standard living wage of no less than $21 an hour for all city and state-funded workers.
Some social service organizations have also argued that they haven’t been paid for the pandemic relief they were promised. And according to the nonpartisan, nonprofit Fiscal Policy Institute — a research-based organization focused on improving New York public policies — even before the pandemic, 68% of the state’s nonprofits anticipated they wouldn’t be able to meet service demands due to underfunding.
Case planner Louis came to her current post with Sheltering Arms from the day care industry, so her dedication to working with children started early on in her worklife. Her job these days takes her well past the typical 9 to 5.
One day it’s a call in the middle of the night that a child has been rushed to the hospital or has to be immediately removed from home. Another, she’s rushing to her Harlem office to finish paperwork before a court case later that day.
In any downtime, she’s pursuing her master’s degree from Fordham University’s Graduate School of Social Service.
“I don’t really have a social life. It’s very crazy,” she said. “I try to find a balance, but my only day off really is Sunday.”
Louis agrees more funding for nonprofits and higher wages would be an incentive for her peers to remain in their human service jobs, and make the work easier to manage with lower caseloads. But there will still be high turnover without additional support such as therapeutic services, support groups and more time off from work, she added.
“The only problem with the job itself is not the pay,” she continued. “Starting with the pay will keep people longer, but to have people stay for more than a year or two, you also have to support them.”