This morning, The Atlantic published a story about The Plight of the Overworked Nonprofit Employee that addresses the conflict non-profits face between paying employees well and devoting funds to services.
While this is not a new conversation at all for those of us in the non-profit sector, it isn’t one that is often discussed in the general media. It is good to see the topic getting out there.
The main impetus for this story seems to be the concern many non-profits feel over the new Department of Labor wage rules which won’t allow companies, including non-profits, to classify employees as exempt from overtime payment rules.
Anyone making less than $47,476 salary a year will be eligible for overtime if they work more than 40 hours a week.
The article notes that many non-profit organizations depend heavily on staff classified as exempt to work overtime in order to achieve their missions. They point out the dichotomy “…between the values that many nonprofits hold and the way they treat their own staffs.”
I felt like the article did a good job of illustrating the tension between wanting to do good in communities with limited funding that often has strings attached and the fact that low salaries and long hours often mean employees are only slightly less stressed than the people they serve.
It is one thing to feel indignant upon reading about the double-standard that exists (my emphasis):
Strangely, though nonprofits are increasingly expected to perform like businesses, they do not get the same leeway in funding that government-contracted businesses do. They don’t have nearly the bargaining power of big corporations, or the ability to raise costs for their products and services, because of tight controls on grant funding. “D.C. is full of millionaires who contract with government in the defense field, and they make a killing, and yet if you’re a nonprofit, chances are you aren’t getting the full amount of funding to cover the cost of the services required,” Iliff said. “Can you imagine Lockheed Martin or Boeing putting up with a government contract that didn’t allow for overhead?”
But when you read about how people who assist those experiencing trauma can’t afford to get help dealing with their own trauma, there is a greater sense of urgency that the environment needs to change:
When Roberts arrived, the battered woman clung to her and asked her to listen to a recording of the sounds of fighting and of the woman screaming and crying. Roberts joined her in prayer, helped her move her things to a new apartment, went back to the agency, locked herself in the bathroom, and sobbed. On days like that, Roberts wanted to get therapy, but knew that she couldn’t afford it. “If I had gotten paid for all the hours I was working, even at my base rate, I would have jumped at the opportunity to seek care to make sense of what I’ve experienced on the job,” Roberts says. “But I wasn’t making enough to pay for anything more than my basic needs.”
It should be noted that the Ms. Roberts’ employer forbids people to work overtime, but there was an organizational culture that dissuaded people to take time off or flex their time when the demands of the job went past 5 pm.
As I read the article, there seemed to be a slight subtext suggesting that the new labor laws may force a lot of the issues into the light and lead to reformation. Once non-profits tell government agencies and other funders they can no longer legally accomplish the same things for the old levels of funding, then long overdue decisions will have to be made.
The new salary rules eliminate the margins that allowed non-profits to try to do more with less. While it may be a relief when non-profit employees finally begin to get paid and scheduled appropriately, the communities those non-profit organizations serve may suffer a great deal more before the reality of the situation is acknowledged and appropriate steps are taken.