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human service wage gap

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UW study makes clear the gulf between human services pay and region’s cost of living

Auhtors recommend a 40% pay increase for all childcare and other human services workers by 2030

To child care and other human services workers in Seattle, the fact that the gap between what they get paid and what it costs to live here has widened is not news. 

Instead, it’s a fact that has caused many workers to leave the non-profit sector for higher-paying jobs in for-profit fields. That, in turn, has left many parents, families, and organizations struggling to find the care they need for babies, young children, youth, the elderly, and those struggling with homelessness, mental illness, or other crises. 

A new University of Washington wage equity study — which includes a market analysis of current human services wages compared to wages paid for similar work in the for-profit sector —  shows just how wide that wage-cost of living gap is. 

Underpaid care providers

Human services workers are those employed in early childhood learning centers, special education programs, teen programs focused on youth behavioral health, and job training and employment programs for young and less experienced workers. They provide support for elders, including in-home health care. And they provide essential services to support people, families, and communities experiencing crises – for example, providing services to those impacted by domestic violence, food insecurity, or natural disasters. 

In King County, 40% of the human services workforce provides child care or early learning services while 50% cover other individual and family services. The remaining 10% are split between vocational rehabilitation, community food and housing, and emergency services, according to the study. The most common occupations among human services workers are childcare workers and social workers.

The pay gap

According to the market analysis in the study report “Wage Equity for Non-profit Human Services Workers: A study of work and pay in Seattle and King County,” nonprofit human services workers in Washington earn 38% less than similar workers in for-profit non-care industries. 

Human services worker pay

From the report “Wage Equity for Non-profit Human Services Workers: A study of work and pay in Seattle and King County

“Human services workers are paid less than workers in other industries in every demographic subgroup except one – Hispanic men are paid slightly more in human services than they are in other industries,” the study authors write. Women account for nearly 80% of all human services workers in King County. The study also notes that “workers of color are over-represented in the lowest-paid human services jobs, including frontline care work.”

Wage vs cost of living in Seattle/King County

The report finds that the median income for Washington’s full-time human services workers was $33,995 in 2019 while full-time workers in non-care industries saw a median income of $54,831 that same year. That gap, researchers say, is problematic juxtaposed against the $86,000 income needed for a Seattle family of four (two parents, two kids to be self-sufficient. Harder still for a single parent of a preschooler for whom the cost of self-sufficiency is around $69,000 a year. The region’s high cost of living makes the average pay increase of 7% that comes from leaving human services work for a job in a for-profit industry not insubstantial.

From the report “Wage Equity for Non-profit Human Services Workers: A study of work and pay in Seattle and King County

How to improve the crisis

The report outlines seven recommendations for closing the wage equity gap. 

First, by 2025, the authors recommend that: 

  • wages for human services workers be raised by a minimum of 7% “equity adjustment;”
  • adjustments be made for inflation separate from the 7% raise;
  • organizations maintain or improve non-wage benefits even after wage increases (that is not cutting benefits in order to raise wages);
  • consider wage increases as a necessary part of ongoing racial and gender equity work in Seattle and King County.

Second, by 2030, the authors recommend that human service organizations and the sector as a whole commit to: 

  • substantially increase wages for human services workers to a level comparable to work in other sectors – “Without compounding, that would yield a 40% raise from current salary levels.”
  • create a salary grade system that sets minimum pay standards based on job characteristics;
  • use public contracts to further wage equity.

The study was funded by the city of Seattle and led by the  Seattle Human Services Coalition

More at Seattles Child:

“Children’s Alliance 2023 legislative agenda on behalf of children and families”

About the Author

Cheryl Murfin

Cheryl Murfin is managing editor at Seattle's Child. She is also a certified doula, lactation educator for and a certified AWA writing workshop facilitator at