On Tuesday, January 26, WPTI hosted the second briefing in connection with the Voices from the Frontline report series focused on the experiences, perspectives, and needs of frontline workers in the workforce development field. The series is based on responses to the Workforce Field Building Hub (The Hub) at WPTI’s January-February 2020 Survey of New York City Frontline Workforce Professionals, which was completed by 362 respondents – all New York City-based workforce development professionals working as job developers, case managers, job coaches, retention specialists, and in other client-facing roles.
This briefing followed the release of Voices from the Frontline: Compensation and Benefits Among New York City’s Frontline Workforce Professionals, which addressed issues related to pay, healthcare, and other benefits for these workers, discussed the low pay of these workers relevant to their education levels, and revealed serious racial stratification with regard to salary.
Our Findings and Report
Stacy Woodruff, Senior Fellow at WPTI and the report’s author, presented key findings from the report, including:
- The median salary for frontline workforce professionals is approximately $55,000, very close to the median income for the broader New York City workforce.
- In spite of this, frontline workforce professionals are far more likely than the broader workforce, with 74 percent having at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to 44 percent of New York City working-age adults.
- Only half of survey respondents indicated that their salary is enough to cover their living expenses.
- Frontline workforce professionals of color are paid less than their white counterparts, 52 percent of white workers reporting salaries of more than $55,000 annually, as compared to 35 percent of Latinx respondents, 29 percent of Black respondents, and 28 percent of Asian, Middle Eastern, or Multi-Ethnic respondents.
- This racial stratification with regard to salary is consistent across gender lines, with 57 percent of white men and 53 percent of white women earning more than $55,000 annually, as compared to 32 percent of men of color and 31 percent of women of color.
- Benefits are a key part of the compensation equation, with respondents to the survey reporting multiple types of benefits. 92 percent reported having medical coverage available, and 74 percent reported a retirement or pension plan, among other benefits.
A Panel of Experts
Following this presentation, we convened a panel, moderated by Justin Collins, Assistant Director of The Hub, featuring leaders from the workforce field and researchers and policy experts representing advocates for the nonprofit and human services sectors:
- Sheree Ferguson-Cousins of Goodwill of NY/NJ
- Michelle Knox of The HOPE Program
- Maria Lizardo of Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation (NMIC)
- MJ Okma of Human Services Council
- Celine Yip of Nonprofit New York
Workforce leaders on the panel discussed challenges attracting and retaining staff due to salary limitations, but presented alternative ways to support their staff and retain talent, including excellent benefits packages, including, in one case, an employer match of more than 10 percent on the organization’s retirement plan. Furthermore, they offer flexible scheduling, close the office for several days during the winter holidays, and try to develop a cohesive sense of community. Providing opportunities for advancement has also been critical to talent retention.
MJ Okma of the Human Services Council and Celine Yip of Nonprofit New York focused on the impact of contracting and funding on compensation and benefits. They discussed a vicious cycle, in which contracts are offered to the lowest bidder and programs are forced to run on low contracts that fail to cover full costs, leading to low salaries and other challenges. In fact, human services workers are the second lowest-paid sector of workers in New York City (behind retail), which has led more than 60 percent of workers in the human services field to qualify for some form of public benefits. According to Human Services Council data, human services contracts in New York City are generally undervalued by 20 percent.
The entire panel explored the issue of racial stratification and structural racism underlying pay inequality in our field. Maria Lizardo of NMIC emphasized the importance of advocacy on behalf of the workforce development field and its workers, including the necessity of having frontline professionals at the table when contracting decisions and policies are being made, a point echoed by Michele Knox of the HOPE Program, who stressed that people of color must be at the table when decisions are being made. Sheree Ferguson-Cousins of Goodwill of NY/NJ discussed a need for diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, and the importance of looking at data with regard to who is taking jobs in the workforce field, and at what pay scale. Meanwhile, multiple panelists stressed the interconnectedness of this issue with that of contracting and funding, as underfunded contracts and grants for a field in which people of color predominate, both as clients and service providers, ultimately perpetuate structural racism.
Breakout Sessions with Our Workforce Development Community
In our breakout conversations with our panelists and members of our audience and the broader workforce community, several critical topics arose. Workforce leaders mentioned a need for multiyear contracts, in order to create stability and sustainability for programs and staffing, ultimately reducing unnecessary stress on frontline staff and allowing them to focus more on the key elements of their job. Others reinforced the panelists’ message that frontline workers must be at the table when decisions are being made, in order to ensure that they are empowered and their needs are being met. Ultimately, numerous audience members emphasized the fact that workforce professionals are frontline workers, especially in times like COVID-19. Their work is both challenging and essential, as workforce development services are necessary to keep families afloat in a struggling economy.
From the report itself, the panel, and our conversations with stakeholders, it is clear that both low pay rates and racial inequities with regard to pay are critical issues facing the workforce development system. Furthermore, these issues flow from structural problems with regard to contracting and funding for workforce development and other human services. Contracts not only fail to cover full costs, but are designed without providers – especially frontline staff – at the table, leaving the realities on the ground unconsidered as program and funding models are being designed. If the system wants to truly support its workers, retain talent, and provide quality workforce development services to the public, voices from the field itself must be heard as they demand increased and better-allocated resources.
We will be releasing our next report in the Voices from the Frontline series, focused on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion with regard to not only pay and benefits, but also workplace culture and opportunities for advancement, in late February. This report will be followed by a briefing, including a panel of experts and voices from the field. In the coming months, we will also be releasing a report on job quality for workforce professionals. Stay tuned for updates on timing regarding the release of the report and the accompanying briefing.
Furthermore, WPTI will be releasing our Voices From the Frontline, Pt. II supplemental survey by early March. Given the fact that the original Voices survey was conducted in January and February of 2020, this survey will focus on the impact of COVID-19 on frontline workforce development professionals, including their needs in an increasingly virtual work environment. Stay tuned for this, and we encourage all client-facing and frontline staff across New York City’s workforce development system to complete this critical survey!