A group of community-based organizations in the Portland area are calling on elected officials in city and county governments to raise the wages of social service workers who are struggling to survive economically doing demanding and critically important work.

It’s a serious problem. Social service nonprofits comprise a major part of the region’s response to the effects of the housing crisis, with cities, counties, and the state all routinely contracting with nonprofits to provide services related to housing, addiction, and mental health.

But some of those organizations are struggling in part because of substandard wages. Monta Knudson, CEO of the housing nonprofit Bridges to Change, said some organizations aren’t well-equipped to successfully take on new contracts because of issues they’re having hiring and retaining workers as a result of their making low-cost bids for government contracts. 

“We can’t meet the need of the expansion if we don’t address the workforce issues, and we can’t address the workforce issues entirely until we get a living wage,” Knudson said. 

As of last week, some 350 people sent letters to members of the Portland City Council, Metro Council, and the Multnomah, Washington, and Clackamas County Boards of Commissioners, warning them that a number of social service workers “are experiencing the vicarious trauma of those they are serving and may be one life emergency and paycheck away from needing services themselves.”

The letters call on the city and county governments to fund wage increases for nonprofit workers in their budgets for the coming fiscal year. The letter-writing drive is being led by the Welcome Home Coalition, a group of Portland area housing organizations, and AFSCME Council 75. 

It comes not only as governments finalize their budgets for the new fiscal year, but also as Gov. Tina Kotek has made combatting the housing crisis one of her foremost goals as governor. Earlier this year, Kotek signed a $200 million housing package as part of a broader effort to direct more resources into housing. 

The state money should be good news for nonprofits, many of whom rely on government contracts for much of their work, but only if they can solve the wage issue. 

There may be some help on the way from the state legislature. Senate Bill 606, sponsored by Aloha Democrat Wlnsvey Campos, would set a minimum rate at which state agencies must compensate nonprofits for indirect costs related to work on the state’s behalf and establish a nonprofit workforce retention fund in the state treasury.

The bill, which has been referred to the Senate Ways and Means committee, is an example of the kind of action that nonprofits want to see governments take on their behalf. The city of Portland has allocated roughly $1 million of the money it’s giving to the Joint Office of Homeless Services to raise nonprofit wages, but that’s a drop in the bucket relative to the need.  

“What I’m seeing is not sufficient,” Molly Hogan, executive director of the Welcome Home Coalition, said. “Providers… are currently already in negotiations for contracts for the new fiscal year, and they’re not seeing evidence of the three percent increase.” 

Julia Comnes, communications coordinator for the Joint Office of Homeless Services, wrote in an email to the Mercury that her office is well aware of the issue. 

“Multnomah County and the Joint Office recognize that low wages are a key contributor to workforce instability in homeless and housing services, a major barrier to delivering effective solutions to homelessness,” Comnes wrote. “With this awareness, the Joint Office launched an in-depth compensation and retention study last year, with findings and potential recommendations now being reviewed by the office.”

Comnes also noted that the wage issue has been identified as a “key area of concern” in the implementation of the Supportive Housing Services Measure. For Knudson, however, a portion of the responsibility for the low wages in the nonprofit world lies with the nonprofits themselves. 

“The system is set up to bid against each other, so we’re like, ‘We want to get this contract—who can do it the cheapest?’ Part of that is on us,” he said. “But the greatest problem is the system at large.”

It’s a vicious cycle: nonprofits compete with each other to win contracts by cutting costs, leaving workers at the bottom of the wage scale suffering as a result. Knudson suggested that one approach to the issue would be nonprofits banding together to install defacto wage floors, forcing cities and counties to pay them enough money so they can provide their workers living wages. 

But Knudson acknowledged the difficulty of getting nonprofits to band together, especially given the pace at which they work. Meanwhile, the low wage scale is having serious effects on the lives of people in the organizations. 

Meg Bender-Stephanski grew up in San Francisco, but came to Portland to attend college. She took a job shortly after graduating as a housing case manager at a local community-based organization and said she enjoys the work, but isn’t sure whether she’ll be able to keep doing it and living in the city.

“I make less money annually than some of the folks who can qualify for our program, folks that I serve,” Bender-Stephanski said. “It’s so awesome to think about people getting housed in the Portland metro area, but at the end of the day, coming home, if my rent is raised… will I be able to continue living here?”

The low wages—Bender-Stephanski makes around $44,000 per year—has a major effect on staff retention. Knudson said some workers in housing-related nonprofits make as little as $17 per hour.

Not only is it more lucrative for workers at community-based organizations to work for for-profit companies, it’s also often more lucrative to work for the government itself. It’s a cycle that has rankled some providers, who spend time and resources training employees only to see them leave for better pay in county government.

“The county is benefitting from the community-based organizations basically training and creating subject-matter experts and then the county gets them as an employee and they’re already subject-matter experts in their field,” Hogan said.

The retention issues at community-based organizations take a toll on the quality of work that they’re able to do as well. 

“Turnover is gnarly,” Bender-Stephanski said. “It’s really sad, because clients that we work with get frustrated and exhausted with being bounced around to different case managers. That’s not client-centered. You want to build rapport, you want to build relationships, you want them to trust you, and if you’re just getting passed off every six months, that doesn’t serve anyone.” 

It’s not just community-based organizations and unions that want to see nonprofit workers better compensated. The Portland Business Alliance has expressed support for the campaign to raise wages as well. 

According to MIT’s Living Wage calculator, the living wage in Multnomah County for an adult with no children is just under $22 per hour. But even that wage puts workers on the edge, especially in jobs that often require considerable emotional outputs from workers. 

“There’s different folks advocating in many different ways, but there's no more time to evaluate,” Knudson said. “If we want to continue to expand to solve the issues that we care about and solve the issues that our legislators say they’re going to solve for their constituents, they have to give us the resources to do it.”