Despite extreme inflation, burnout, and high staff turnover among direct service workers and domestic violence advocates, Mayor Bruce Harrell recently announced a proposal in his budget to make a 1.2% inflation adjustment for social services contracts and to limit wage increases to 4% in the face of 7.6% inflation, effectively cutting our wages. In contrast, Harrell is proposing $30,000 sign-on bonuses for Seattle Police Department officers due to high turnover. Some direct service agencies report 70% turnover rates, and yet Harrell’s plan to stabilize the social services workforce is to cut wages?
Cutting wages for advocates who are already on the brink of poverty isn't just bad for us, it’s counterproductive to the goal of stabilizing people experiencing homelessness and survivors fleeing domestic violence. In its first quarter, the DVHopeline, a hotline for people experiencing domestic violence in King County, received 2,500 crisis calls from survivors. But domestic violence agencies don’t have capacity to meet the needs of people in crisis; some survivors wait months before receiving support, even in the face of lethal violence in their homes.
Survivors are not getting necessary support because there is simply not enough staff staying in the field. We are burning out due to higher caseloads, a severe increase in domestic violence occurrences during the pandemic, and, on top of all that, sickeningly low financial compensation–even for some jobs that require master's degrees.
Some agencies are staffed with one or two case managers, executive directors that have full caseloads on top of their administrative work, and direct service staff who are dropping like flies. Some of these agencies are like ghost towns.
The typical conservative response to requests for desperately needed human services funds is always the same: We’re already spending so much, check the couch cushions!
As someone who has worked in the field for years, it is simply not feasible to stretch the pennies we receive to keep up with the needs of domestic violence survivors. While the City of Seattle spends millions on sweeping homeless folks, which destabilizes people even further and does not get them off the street, domestic violence agencies scramble to pay for legal fees, move-in costs, and child care subsidies to support survivors in rebuilding their lives after extreme violence and trauma. The money we are spending goes to helping survivors relocate for their safety, supporting them in getting out from under economic strain and literal life-threatening situations for parents and children.
Some may argue that more funding for cops would keep survivors safer, but cops actually account for a large share of domestic violence perpetrators, and their presence at a scene can actually make domestic violence situations more dangerous for survivors of color.
My rebuttal to these ideological responses is this: What are you going to do when this happens to you? Maybe you think that’s silly, because you’d never be a victim of domestic violence. But what about your sibling? Or perhaps your friend? What about your child? One in four cisgender women experience domestic violence in their lifetime, and about 50% of trans people do as well.
We need people to be up in arms about the low wages that direct service workers receive, and we need to be loud about how those low wages create the conditions that negatively impact people experiencing violence and homelessness. We need people to shed light on the vitality of this work.
Lives are at stake. On average, more than three women across the nation die each day due to domestic violence homicides. According to the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, there were 32 intimate partner homicides in 2020 in Washington state alone. Furthermore, the YWCA finds that Black women are dying at rates twice that of white women.
We, the social service providers, and the survivors in our community, need you to care. The Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness is providing opportunities to speak up for fair wages for domestic violence advocates and other frontline staff. Please take that opportunity. Because when it’s time for you or one of your loved ones to access services, I hope your local agency is still afloat, and I hope your loved one’s case worker doesn’t need 6 to 8 weeks to get back to them. Because by then it could be too late.
Charlotte Jarvis is a Seattle-based writer, survivor, and EMDR therapist. You can find more of her work at charlottejarvis.com.