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Another Voice: New York must support our nonprofit workforce

By Tina Zerbian

While the rest of the country has recovered from the Great Recession, much of Western New York has been left behind. Nonprofits play a critical role in supporting families and individuals, and given this fact, they are even more important in our region.

The work of these organizations includes delivering services in early childhood that establish a solid foundation for health and development, providing the safe places and social resources that teenagers need to thrive, making sure that adults have access to good jobs and affordable homes, and ensuring that older adults are able to remain connected to their communities.

But too often the nonprofit workers providing these services find themselves in the same place as the people they serve, relying on assistance to make ends meet. This greatly contributes to inequality in Western New York because 82 percent of nonprofit workers are women and approximately 46 percent are people of color. These workers are highly educated, with two-thirds having some college education and nearly half holding a bachelor’s degree or higher, but they are some of the lowest paid workers in the state.

These low wages are a major issue because attracting and retaining specialized workers is essential to providing quality care. My organization, Cattaraugus Community Action, serves five counties, helping people to achieve economic, physical and emotional security. We work with individuals like survivors of domestic violence and people experiencing homelessness. Helping these populations effectively requires stability, expertise and trust between staff and clients. This is interrupted every time an organization loses a staff member due to low wages, further exacerbating the challenges social services providers face.

The salaries of nonprofit human services workers are largely controlled by the government because the nonprofits operating these programs are doing so under state contracts. Last year, New York raised the minimum wage and expanded overtime eligibility. This was the right thing to do for nonprofit workers and the people they serve. But because the government didn’t give nonprofits additional funding to pay for this increase, nonprofits are not able meet the new mandates without compromising their financial and operational integrity.

We’ve had to make difficult choices and we aren’t able to invest in important areas like technology and employee benefits. And even though our agency has doubled in size in the past 10 years, we haven’t been able to increase our administrative staff, which directly impacts our work.

State government has goals and priorities and relies on nonprofits to carry out the programs that meet those goals. Therefore, New York State must appropriately compensate these nonprofits to ensure that organizations can provide competitive salaries, from entry-level workers to certified professional positions. Proper funding will ensure this workforce is strong so that they can provide a foundation of well-being for communities throughout Western New York and beyond.

Tina Zerbian is the CEO of Cattaraugus Community Action.

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