Human service workers woefully underpaid

Help the helpers with student loan repayment program

PUBLIC SERVICE PAY has been in the news.  From reports that the former UMass basketball coach was paid over $1 million to an audit that discovered some State Police troopers were paid for overtime and detail shifts not actually worked, the public has a right to question these expenditures.

While taxpayers contemplate the fiscal burden of such past practices, they should also consider the tremendous value they get from our other first responders: employees of human service nonprofits who, under contracts with state agencies, provide care for one in ten residents of the Commonwealth.

Many of these workers start out making just $12 an hour, and the salaries rise slowly after that.

And what are human service employees doing in return for that pay? Caring for those with developmental disabilities, individuals with mental illness or an addiction, children born addicted to opioids and subsequently removed from their home, veterans returning from battle with traumatic brain injuries, our elderly needing meals and shelter, and teens in the juvenile justice system needing another chance.

In other words, they’re doing hard, demanding work with individuals and families who depend on them. While many employees have undergraduate and advanced degrees, their compensation is just slightly above the person who may have prepared your coffee this morning or delivered a pizza to your home last night.

Our caring force of committed employees undertakes this work because they are passionate about it and want to make the world a better place.

Some human services workers receive low wages due to the state setting a low rate of reimbursement for these jobs. Our people are paying hundreds of dollars a month in student loans and often must decide between making loan payments and affording groceries or rent.

Take the case of Jasmine, a youth service coordinator working in Dorchester for Roxbury Youthworks Inc.  Jasmine works with adolescents in the Department of Youth Services system, helping them to attain educational goals, address the issues that led to their entering DYS, and most important, to stay safe.

She has had a great track record working with both teens and their families. She knows the joy firsthand of watching a teen in her care graduate from high school, get a job, or repel the pressure of joining or getting back in with a gang.

She also, though, knows the heartache of youth getting off-track, and of losing a teen forever to violence or drugs.

“You just have to keep pressing, keep moving,” she says. “You keep their memory alive by working even harder and making sure the kids you serve make good decisions. Sometimes we are the only positive reinforcement in their day.”

Jasmine earns some $40,000 per year. Her job requires a college degree so that she has the applicable skills to care for vulnerable teens, yet the state doesn’t take this into account when it sets rates to reimburse the agency that employs Jasmine. She must pay $600 a month in student loans while trying to live in one of the nation’s most expensive cities. She spends over $1,000 per month to rent a studio apartment and worries about not taking care of herself, as she is often forced to eat less healthy food due to her finances.

Many of Jasmine’s colleagues work two – and in some cases, three – jobs just to get by.

How can we ask employees to bring compassion, commitment, and dedication to jobs when they are exhausted and anxious from trying to make ends meet?

Our Commonwealth depends on these employees succeeding in their work.  We must also give them the support they need to succeed.

The human service sector is asking state government to help the helpers by enacting House bill 116 and Senate bill 42, which would create a modest student loan repayment program for human service workers. The legislation is designed to keep the workers in the field where they – every day – help residents of the Commonwealth who require essential care and supports. The bill  would provide full-time employees with up to $150 per month for up to 48 months in direct loan repayment.

Programs such as this one, where the reimbursement would flow directly from the state to the loan issuer, ensure a high degree of accountability while, in some instances, making the difference between a worker staying in the human service profession or leaving for a different career.

Human service agencies across Massachusetts are innovating more than anyone thought possible when it comes to recruiting staff, including recruiting overseas.

We need to hold on to our best people.  A loan repayment program will enable our agencies to do just that.

Meet the Author
Meet the Author

Michael Weekes

President and CEO, Providers' Council
It’s not just the CEO and HR directors of human service agencies who are depending on it.  It is our vulnerable families, friends, and neighbors, who, without such support, may find life in the community in jeopardy.

Mia Alvarado is the executive director of Roxbury Youthworks, Inc. and Michael Weekes is the president and CEO of the Providers’ Council.