As Workers Gain Pay Leverage, Nonprofits Can’t Keep Up

At Maryhurst, which provides help to children suffering neglect and abuse, the staffing shortage was so severe that the board recently agreed to raise wages for frontline workers, in some cases by as much as 28 percent. But the organization didn’t receive any permanent increase in state funding to pay for those raises, meaning it will have to cut costs elsewhere or raise extra money from private donors.

Neither approach is sustainable, Mr. Jorrisch said. And the organization still has a vacancy rate of about 30 percent — just this month, Maryhurst lost one of its longest-tenured supervisors to a job at Kroger, the supermarket chain.

Many public-sector employers are facing similar problems. Billions of dollars of federal aid to state and local governments during the pandemic helped prevent the budget crises that some experts initially feared. But many local officials are wary of offering permanent wage increases based on short-term federal assistance.

“It is very dangerous for us to set precedent using one-time funding to create larger salaries unless there is clarity that that funding will continue,” said John Malloy, superintendent of the San Ramon Valley Unified School District, east of Oakland, Calif.

Mr. Malloy says his district has an unusually large number of vacant teaching positions. But as in many school districts, the larger challenge is outside the classroom, where they are competing more directly with rapidly rising private-sector wages. School bus drivers can earn far more making deliveries for Amazon. Cafeteria workers and custodians can make better money doing similar work at for-profit companies. This fall, Mr. Malloy resorted to asking central-office staff, including himself, to take shifts supervising students at lunchtime.

Wages aren’t the only challenge. School superintendents say they are also battling burnout after close to two years of remote and hybrid learning, battles over mask and vaccine mandates, and other issues. And schools can’t offer remote work or flexible schedules to help compensate for lower pay.

Similar issues face nonprofits, especially those involved in child welfare, mental health and other direct services. Demand for many services has soared during the pandemic, straining already thin staffs. Education and human services also disproportionately employ women, who have borne the brunt of the child care crisis that has emerged during the pandemic.

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