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The Current State of the Human Service Workforce – Part 1

June 7, 2022

This piece is Part 1 of 2 from the National Human Services Assembly series entitled, “The Current State of the Human Service Workforce,” running in the month of June and culminating with a panel discussion at our 2022 Annual Meeting. It explores the many contributing dynamics to the talent crisis the sector faces and was developed by members of the National Assembly’s board and leadership team. The second part of the series will publish next week on our blog. 

In the last two years, we have seen clearer than ever that certain services and workers are essential to our collective and individual well-being. And while it took the tragedy of a pandemic for many of us to realize this, our remedies to-date don’t go far enough. The pandemic exposed that frontline human service workers–those doing some of the most difficult, but necessary, work with vulnerable people–have been historically underpaid, under-supported, and left to seek government subsidies themselves in order to make ends meet. These frontline human service staff serve as essential workers and as professionals in their fields, providing skilled services often under extreme conditions, in life and death matters. We need them. 

Government responses to COVID-19 indeed addressed similar needs for frontline government workers. However, for the nonprofit human service sector, the government’s relief packages underperformed. Only 3.7% of the $4.9M in PPP loans went to nonprofit organizations. Similarly, nonprofit human service workers’ salaries and wages, which tend to be highly regulated in government contracts, are often underfunded in grants awarded by government and philanthropy. 

While the for-profit sector can raise the prices of goods and services to cover increased labor costs, the nonprofit sector is bound by the limitations of government contracts and therefore cannot increase wages for their current employees. This competitive disadvantage also makes it harder to effectively recruit new staff. Additionally, government grants often do not pay the full cost of services provided, and even good economic policy, like raising the minimum wage, can negatively affect the bottom line. Not having a matching increase in grants is tantamount to an unfunded mandate for organizations that employ essential workers. 

Frontline workers impact all of us and are essential to families, young people, seniors, people with physical and intellectual disabilities, and those who struggle with mental health challenges and addiction. These roles often require specialized skills or education and professional certifications, and our human service workers do the work many of us can’t or don’t want to do. They are also more likely to be exposed to trauma – directly or vicariously. So, it’s no wonder when retail and food service employers are raising wages, that a less stressful job with similar or greater pay and more flexible hours might look more appealing. 

And let us not forget, this is also an equity issue. Most frontline workers are women and people of color, who have historically been underpaid, discriminated against (in pay and other ways), and lacked economic mobility.  

A campaign for living wages for nonprofit frontline workers in New York City noted that 8 out of 10 human service workers in the five boroughs are people of color and 60% of them qualify for one form of government assistance, if not multiple. The September 2020 “Building Our Care Infrastructure” report released by Caring Across Generations, encapsulated this challenge in the following way. “Inadequate, patchwork care programs built on racism, ableism, sexism, and exclusion underlie the current health and economic crises, which have systemic, disparate impacts on Black people, especially Black women and Black disabled people.” 

Recently, we spoke to a human service professional that worked at a community-based nonprofit in Washington, DC. While requesting anonymity, the interviewee shared that they began their career as an intern and through dedication, earned full-time employment as a case manager. This single parent and person of color admitted that they often lived “one paycheck away from being a client” but both loved and wanted to be dedicated to their clients. Unfortunately, as is with many frontline professionals, the lure of a consistently funded position at a federal agency was too good to pass up, allowing an increase in their annual salary from the $38K they started with to the low $100K’s. Additionally, the new role required the same bachelor’s degree as the original. This is another familiar example of the sector’s inability to retain talent because of depressed compensation levels.


Having identified many of the challenges this crisis presents for human services nonprofits and the professionals that give so much of themselves to provide services, Part 2 of this series looks at some policy initiatives that some governments and philanthropy have either introduced or implemented to address the crisis.