In a Wednesday Budget Committee meeting, staff briefed the City Council on the Mayor’s budget proposal for the first time this year. While members of the public and the budget chair continue to pick through the 744-page document, they seem to agree that at least one line-item needs to change: a measure to effectively cut pay for shelter workers, case managers, and other human service providers.

Current city law requires wages for those workers to increase at the rate of inflation, which would be about 7.6% in 2022. The Mayor wants to cap those wage increases at 4% for human service providers who contract with the City, which would require a change in the law. The proposal also seems insulting when compared to the size of the hiring bonuses the City dangled in front of cops. 

“If we're serious about ending the homelessness crisis, we need to invest in this critical workforce, not give them what functionally amounts to a pay cut that's included in [the Mayor’s] proposal,” said Jessie Friedmann, the public policy director at YouthCare, during the committee's public comment period. 

Many leaders of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness and the Seattle Human Services Coalition, two groups of advocates that run collaborative campaigns to raise wages for human service workers, flocked to the meeting to warn the council that this cap would negatively impact retention, making it more difficult to provide services to the people who rely on them. 

The speakers said the sector already struggles to keep workers, largely because they are “behind the eight ball” when it comes to wages, said Steve Daschle, the executive director of Southwest Youth and Family Services. 

According to a presentation from the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) in May of 2022, “provider wages are not sustainable.” In its slideshow, the authority reported that its “direct service workers” only make $19.70 per hour, and case managers make just under $25 per hour, putting both positions well below the county’s median household income of about $49 per hour. Those wages also put those positions below the $42 hourly wage needed to afford a one-bedroom apartment, and even below the bar for “low-income,” which is a little over $39 per hour. 

Though the public commenters advocated for the budget simply to comply with existing law, the Solidarity Budget, which consolidates the demands of many progressive organizations, took it a step further. The coalition demanded that no full-time public employee earn less than $25 per hour. On top of that, the Solidarity Budget proposed hiring bonuses for human service providers of $7,000 for new recruits and $30,000 for lateral hires to match similar incentives the City recently passed to help fill empty positions at the Seattle Police Department, which has also struggled to retain employees.

Needless to say, the Mayor’s budget wouldn’t stuff the wallets of human service providers. If the council adopted his proposal, the human service workers making $19.70 an hour would get a 79-cent per hour raise. If the council followed the law on the books, they’d get a $1.49 per hour raise. 

But luckily for service providers, they have a powerful ally in Budget Chair Teresa Mosqueda. 

She’s fought this fight before. In 2019, Mosqueda championed the law to mandate that human service providers' wages increase year-to-year with the rate of inflation. Harrell’s proposed budget would continue former Mayor Jenny Durkan’s legacy of railing against the reform.

In her first thumb through the budget, Mosqueda said the proposal caught her eye as a possible “misalignment” between the priorities of the council and the Mayor. 

She referenced the Mayor’s cutesy explanation of equality versus equity in his budget proposal address on Tuesday. He said he didn’t like “equity” much when it earned his brother more allowance money than him, but, as a Mayor, he said he wanted to produce a budget that allocates resources according to need. 

Mosqueda agreed with that approach, but she asks him to extend that logic to service-provider wages as the cost of living increases. She’s still waiting on more information to see if this policy aligns with council values, but “at first blush, it looks like it does not, so that’s going to be a big area of focus for me,” she said.