San Francisco’s Nonprofit Workers Demand Economic Fairness

by Randy Shaw on April 16, 2012

On April 18 at 3:00 pm in the Board of Supervisors chambers, employees of nonprofit groups performing vital city services will demand salary increases in San Francisco’s 2012-13 budget. After at least three years of frozen wages and rising health care costs, the city’s nonprofit sector is at the breaking point, with its many already lower-paid workers bearing the brunt of the city’s prior fiscal crisis. Nonprofit workers disproportionately come from San Francisco’s low-income neighborhoods. They are working to support families, and much of their income goes right back into these communities. Yet San Francisco has a long history of under-compensating this workforce, often treating nonprofit employees as if they are working for pin money. The April 18 hearing gives nonprofit workers a chance to tell the Budget Committee why they need raises this year, and why denying such increases to workers addressing some of the city’s toughest problems is unconscionable.

San Francisco needs to take a hard look in the mirror about how it spends its budget.
A city that prides himself on its groundbreaking programs addressing HIV/AIDS, homelessness, mental health, affordable housing and other issues has looked the other way when it comes to compensating those providing these vital services. While there always is room in the budget for city manager’s earning six-figure salaries for “administering” something, even small raises for those cleaning bathrooms in Care Not Cash hotels, working in homeless shelters, or trying to stabilize a mentally-troubled person undergoing trauma, are the first to go on the budget chopping-block.

The extraordinary under-compensation of San Francisco’s nonprofit workers began with the sector’s dramatic expansion in the early 1980’s. This structural problem cannot be solved this year. But San Francisco can turn the page on past history and begin doing the right thing for those in the trenches whose work make politicians and city department heads look good.

Yes We Can give nonprofit workers meaningful raises this year. And that will be the message heard throughout City Hall when these workers speak out on April 18.

Who Are Nonprofit Workers?

Many are troubled by the departure of African-Americans (now only 6% of the city’s population), blue-collar workers and families with children from San Francisco. The city has passed local hiring laws and is attempting to create an Affordable Housing Trust Fund to slow such trends.

But no efforts have targeted the nonprofit sector – where many residents of the city’s low-income communities work.

My organization, the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, has 142 workers that live in San Francisco. Many have children and 44% of these workers are African-American. Our workers are precisely the group that city policies (as opposed to actual practices) are supposed to be encouraging to stay in the city.

How can that occur when the city has frozen wages for nonprofit workers for over three years, and not reimbursed city contractors for steep health care increases (Kaiser has raised our rates 48% over the past four years and is projecting a 16% hike in the coming year)? It doesn’t. In fact, it encourages the populations the city claims to be trying to help stay in San Francisco to move to less costly cities.

A number of years ago a city administrator told me that nonprofit jobs should be considered “starter” positions where workers then move on to higher paying jobs after a few years. Putting aside the fiction that such higher paying jobs are widely available, such a view cares little about the quality of nonprofit services.

Any nonprofit Executive Director or Human Resources head knows that employee turnover is very costly and that long-term, consistent workers are the key to a successful program. Yet I think many hold this administrator’s view, believing that nonprofit work is akin to Teach for America, attracting young college grads who spend two years teaching low-income students before entering law school or obtaining higher paying jobs.

In truth, San Francisco’s nonprofit sector is the backbone of the city’s shrinking working-class. And while most San Francisco politicians support the demands of Occupy for greater economic fairness, nonprofit workers have yet to see local actions implementing this agenda.

SEIU Local 1021 has joined with a large coalition of nonprofit groups to get this chance for workers to tell their stories to the Supervisors on April 18. Nonprofit workers have been silent too long, and now realize that to get economic fairness they must publicly demand it.

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