Nonprofit jobs need better pay

Rick Cohen
Rick Cohen

Rick Cohen

The current wave of enthusiasm for service and volunteerism in the nonprofit sector — key components of the Obama-Biden campaign platform that are likely to come to pass with the enactment of Serve America Act co-sponsored by Senators Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy — risks distorting the American public’s perception of what constitutes good nonprofit jobs, particularly in human services.

This is a difficult time to challenge inadequate nonprofit wages.

Unemployment and underemployment have skyrocketed. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4.1 million people became unemployed in the last 12 months,
including nearly 600,000 in January 2009 alone.

People counted as “involuntarily part-time” because they can’t find good full-time jobs increased by 3.1 million over the year.

Facing the worst recession since the 1930s, a nation that not long ago decried Wal-Mart and Target jobs as abysmal and called for government contractors to pay “living
wages” now seems prepared to accept nearly anything that will generate paychecks.

The economic stimulus package signed by President Obama aims at stimulating construction in “shovel-ready” public improvement projects and jump-starting demand for cars and trucks that will reemploy laid-off Detroit autoworkers.

Even with wage concessions, construction and manufacturing jobs won’t be sub-living wage.

But what is the message for nonprofit human service jobs in this economic crisis?

The major initiatives in the public’s consciousness to build and sustain employment in the nonprofit sector generally sound like pretty low-wage, volunteer responses
to the need to fill nonprofit line jobs with decently-paid and trained professionals.

During the presidential campaign, candidates Obama and Biden released a document titled, “Helping All Americans Serve Their Country,” heavily oriented to a range of
stipended and volunteer additions to the AmeriCorps family of programs.

For example, the statement called for an increase in the size of AmeriCorps from its current roughly 75,000 slots to 250,000 through initiatives focused on classroom
teaching, health services, clean energy and homeland security.

This is just about exactly the projected AmeriCorps size in the Kennedy-Hatch bill.

AmeriCorps is a program that many Americans adore for a variety of reasons ranging from its impact on participants’ civic participation to the notion of doing community
service work to earn money to be used for college or graduate school tuition.

But AmeriCorps jobs, with annual stipends of around $10,000 or $11,000, are not the equivalent of good jobs.

They are generally below living wage, barely above the upcoming July 2009 federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

Realize further than more than half of AmeriCorps participants are actually only part-time, probably working their tails off, like most AmeriCorps people, nonetheless.

Just read the AmeriCorps jobs tips for helping participants find affordable-housing accommodations on these living stipends.

AmeriCorps stipends do not constitute good wages in the nonprofit human-services sector.

But as nonprofits are being compelled due to philanthropic and government cutbacks to lay off staff, replacing them with AmeriCorps bodies could lead to the deleterious idea that nonprofits don’t need to pay well, pay living wages, offer benefits, offer union-like job protections, offer full-time jobs, create long-term career paths, or recruit and build professional skills among their staff in order to deliver their goods and services.

A batch of observers has suggested that these 250,000 AmeriCorps slots be counted as stimulus-induced and stimulus-inducing job creation.

The public impression that nonprofit jobs are low-paid, poverty-wage jobs in which enthusiasm and caring takes the place of technical skills and professional
continuity is not the way to build and sustain a nonprofit workforce.

Moreover, it is a terrible message to send for the human-services delivery part of the nonprofit sector in which people of color and women constitute disproportionately high percentages of the workforce.

The downside risk of substituting low-paid stipended-volunteers for nonprofit human-servicesjobs is the dynamic of the “casualization of jobs” that Robert Kuttner of the
American Prospect describes as jobs that pay low-wages, offer weak or no benefits, and little in the way of job protections, which he describes as the “industry standard” in the human service sector.

He suggests an alternative to the drift toward casual jobs as the norm in the human-services sector, nonprofit and for-profit:

“Since most human-service costs are paid socially, choices about how to compensate workers are social decisions…Congress could require that any job in the human services supported in whole or in part by federal funds would have to pay a professional wage and be part of a career track [with a] minimum starting annual salary
might be $24,000 a year, or about $12 an hour…”

That’s not much of a salary, but it might stanch the public’s thinking that the nonprofit workforce can be sustained with an oversupply of caring and concern to make up
for the shortfalls in take-home pay and job protections.

Despite the campaign’s overreliance on volunteerism as the labor solution for the nonprofit sector, abetted by Colin Powell’s leading role in the Martin Luther King Jr. Day “Day of Service” this past January, harkening back to his 1977 volunteer summit during the Clinton Administration that led to the creation of America’s Promise, there is an audience in the new administration for remembering the importance of good jobs in the nonprofit sector.

An important hint came from Shirley Sagawa, rumored to be in line for a top Obama administration post, who suggested it might be more important to focus on the quality of AmeriCorps jobs, not simply by the “number of bodies” in the program.

One national nonprofit leader recently called on Congress to “ensure that nonprofit workers stay on the job” if the nonprofit sector is going to be able to fulfill its role in the national economic recovery.

That is not going to happen if the national recovery classifies private-sector jobs as worthy of decent wages and protections, but nonprofit jobs to be filled by people paid little or nothing.

Rick Cohen is national correspondent for The Nonprofit Quarterly.

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