Conversation about the #JustPay Campaign for Human Services with Michelle Jackson

This week, Gregory J Morris, CEO of NYCETC sat down with Michelle Jackson, Executive Director of the Human Services Council for a conversation on what #JustPay means for human services workers and the field. [This interview was edited and condensed.]

Editor’s note: This feature was originally included in NYCETC’s NYC Workforce Weekly newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every Wednesday with trends and top stories about workforce development in New York City. Subscribe here.

Gregory J Morris: I was honored stand with human services sector leaders last week – camped out overnight in front of City Hall – and rallying for #JustPay the very next day. Tell us what you think the value and impact of those gatherings were – and also “A Day Without Human Services” action in May…

Michelle Jackson: 6,000 people were part of that action in May – that is huge departure for the sector and actually the biggest rally of any kind that the city had this year in terms of budget. And we didn’t get a lot back, and we knew we needed to do more. So we decided to do an up all night outside of City Hall – an unpermitted action that brought 50 executive directors together to really bring public attention and press attention to the need for a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) in the budget… That paired nicely with a coalition-led rally that was joined by several City Council members and Speaker Adams. That was a remarkable 24 hours of advocacy by the entire sector- and as we go into final budget negotiations, I think we’ve really done all we could to make our point.

Morris: When you take action of such significance – and you don’t hear a commitment from the administration yet that meets or surpasses the bar you set for your advocacy efforts- how do you interpret that and respond that?

Jackson: I think every year is different. And we always expect silence first. When that happens, we ask ourselves did what we do “hit” or not? Look, we know we have Deputy Mayors who come from the sector and they understand our needs. We also know there is a tough budget to think about. Sometimes silence is just (the result of there being) too many balls in the air. And it’s our job as advocates, not just HSC, but our fellow peers who are a part of it, to find a way to break through.

Morris: We’ve heard consistently from this administration that are they are very anxious about the financial picture is of the city. How do you reflect on or think about that? How do you respond to the idea of, “There just isn’t enough money to go around?”

Jackson: The sector, in general, is happy to settle for crumbs and, historically, has been happy to say, “At least, we got something.” That’s a narrative that I want to push back on especially this year. We should be comparing ourselves to what other people are getting in the budget and not what we got last year. The are multi-billion dollar deals being made. Since January, there has been plenty of money, deservedly for teachers, for DC37… The idea that it’s a tight budget year- first, the numbers don’t match that. Second, to how this mayor has spent money leading up until the final budget demonstrates that there has been plenty of money.

This is my third administration now. Every mayor is different… When it comes to policy and advocacy, there’s not an actual playbook. If someone says, “Ten years ago we did summer youth advocacy and it achieved X…” That’s great. But that’s not a playbook. It’s a strategy… What we’re trying to do with the sector is to have it sit in its own power. Your Boards of Directors are politically and financially connected. There are (tens of) thousands of workers. Hundreds of thousands of people who come through your doors…

The human services workforce is overwhelmingly women and overwhelmingly people of color. It’s like 70% and 70% respectively. Over half of human services workers qualify for some sort of public benefit or are near the poverty threshold. We’re the second lowest paid industry behind restaurant workers. There’s absolutely a racial equity and gender justice element to the #JustPay campaign.

Morris: I’ve been in the sector 25 years- the wage gaps have existed during that time and before that time – and, quite frankly, even with a significant budget commitment, there will still be a long way to go in terms of any sort of equity.

Jackson: We still live in a remarkably racist system. The sector was not designed to solve real social injustices. It was meant to ameliorate the worst impacts of capitalism and racism. The nonprofit sector didn’t start from a place of “change.” And that doesn’t mean that the people who did and do that work don’t believe in solving injustice. It’s just that the structure of the nonprofit industry was always on the fringe. We were just supposed to make sure that there weren’t too many homeless people, too many hungry people. Not to solve those problems. Nonprofits do that work – and the system undervalues that work – and underfunds that work. If NASA says it costs $10 million to go to the moon, you don’t give them $8 million because then they don’t make it to the moon. Nonprofits continue to accept contracts and participate in a system that underpays them – and they are in this impossible position of “When do you say no?” Do you close (an underfunded) program and lay off people, or do you say, “Yes, we’re trying to make it work.” But by trying to make it work, you’re also perpetuating these inequities and structural racism.

Morris: When I think about pathways to opportunity and equity in our workforce, I think about unions, and I think about those new agreements and contracts that have sought to establish wage increases over time, and in some cases, worksite flexibility and recruitment and retention investments. Can you talk to me about the intersection of labor and the human services sector? We know there are coalition members who are unionized and others that are not.

Jackson: About a third of our members are fully unionized and a third are partially unionized. Unions have been active in helping lift up wages for some occupations… We have found lots of ways to partner over decades. We’re pro-worker- and workers should do what they feel is best for them at their organizations specific to unions. Unfortunately, in the human services sector, there hasn’t been success in terms of lifting up wages or other benefits when there has been a union present… If an organization is 90% government funded, it does not matter what a union would like unless that union is also going to advocate for those changes with government because there’s no deal to be made. And as we’ve seen, the city has denied contracts – and contract budgets – if workers are paid certain levels.. DC37 has been supportive of the #JustPay campaign. We’ve seen broad support for lifting up worker’s salaries.

Morris: Is there specific guidance you would want to share with someone who wants to get into the workforce specifically for the purpose of thinking about opportunities to work in policy and advocacy space? What skills, qualities, characteristics are needed? What do they need to know, do or otherwise?

Jackson: Everyone who works in the nonprofit field should see themselves as an advocate… And subscribe to the ‘personal’ is ‘political.’ We always think about the big issues in terms of like federal elections, but, really, it comes down to “alternate side parking in your neighborhood” and “how much you get paid?” and “who gets paid what?” All those things are issues that impact your day-to-day life. If you’re working in the nonprofit sector, it means you’re actively working to affect change.

Progress is slow. It doesn’t move in one direction. And you must have a joy and sense of humor in the work. I think anyone can do this work… The special skill set is working in the community, being able to look at those big structural issues and having kind of a relentless optimism that things can be better.