Investing in New York's Human Capital

Recently, New York's Governor Cuomo announced he will establish a mandatory $15 minimum wage for all state workers. New York has one of the largest income gaps in the nation, so it's particularly meaningful that this is the first time a governor has increased mandatory pay to at least $15 for its public employees. This is a welcome policy change and Governor Cuomo should be applauded for his efforts. Now, it's time for the governor to do the same for the thousands of human service employees working on state contracts.

This workforce delivers essential government services that support the health and well being of residents across the state. These employees include the workers who staff senior centers, foster care agencies, after-school programs, homeless shelters and facilities providing community health services.

The government contracts out these critical services to nonprofit human service organizations, and relies on their expertise to deliver low-cost interventions. Their work provides a cheap way for government to provide services, resulting in savings for the state many times over. But unless the governor includes funding in his budget, they won't be beneficiaries of this policy.

In September, Governor Cuomo specifically stated that he didn't want to get into a situation where he picked select groups of workers for wage increases, but that's exactly what has happened. These employees deserve wage increases too, but their pay levels are determined by the state budget. To ensure they benefit from this minimum wage policy, Governor Cuomo must make it his priority to allocate funding for them.

Human service workers are responsible for administering vital programs that promote well-being for populations throughout New York, including the disabled, the elderly, children and victims of violence. Despite the clear importance of the function they provide, these workers remain poorly compensated. The members of this workforce increasingly find themselves in the very same position as their clients-- in need of social service assistance to provide for their families.

Leaving human service providers behind with this wage increase will disproportionately hurt women and people of color, groups that are already very familiar with the strain of income inequality. In New York City, 85% of human service workers are women and 75% are people of color. And, of the City's female human services workers, 52 percent are paid less than $14 per hour.

Without being able to fairly compensate employees, the ability of these organizations to retain talent and maintain quality programming is constantly undermined, making it unnecessarily challenging for them to achieve the desired social impact. Reducing this high turnover rate will not only improve the quality and consistency of the services provided, but will reduce the funds spent on recruiting and training new employees.

The governor has taken a bold step as a leader at the forefront of the battle against income inequality. He must now make it a priority to ensure that the thousands of workers who deliver human services on the government's behalf also earn a living wage.

Allison Sesso is the Executive Director of the Human Services Council of New York (HSC), an organization representing nonprofit human service organizations across New York. During her tenure at HSC she has led negotiations with City and State government around the provision of Cost of Living Adjustments for nonprofit workers and has worked on the development and implementation of a range of policy and procedural changes aimed at streamlining the relationship between nonprofits and government.