A coalition of organizers and the Human Services Council (HSC) spent a particularly chilly June night sleeping outside City Hall last week to demand “JustPay” for “underpaid, city-contracted essential workers.”

Human services are composed of more than 125,000 municipal employees who help run the city’s agencies, including after-school programs, senior centers, legal services, food pantries, domestic violence and homeless shelters, foster care, and other essential services. Most human service workers in New York City are people of color or women—particularly Black and brown women, and over half of them qualify for at least one form of government assistance, said the coalition.

“Our human services workers are the civilian frontlines of the war on poverty and face the great challenges of our city head on,” said Councilmember Nantasha Williams in a statement. “Those most in need, the impoverished, the ailing, and more; all find help with these workers every day. Why does this city not care for the caretaker the same way? A real cost of living adjustment is the minimum we should be doing for these workers.” 

The coalition is demanding a 6.5% Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) in this year’s city budget, due by July, and a multi-year deal of 16.5% to match the number of recently announced union deals. Low wages have resulted in high turnover rates and challenges in recruiting qualified workers, said the coalition.

“Thank you to the nonprofit leaders for leading with courage and going to the extreme by staying out all night on New York streets to try and get their staff equitable wages,” said Councilmember Althea Stevens in a statement. “This budget needs to give human services workers a step to real livable wages.”

Damyn Kelly, JD, PhD, president and CEO at Lutheran Social Services of New York, said it’s clear where city government is setting its priorities and values. Kelly is advocating that human service get increases similar to the recently inked city multi-year deals with other unions, such as District Council 37 (DC37), the NYPD, and the United Federation of Teachers (UFT).

“I’m out here tonight because my workers stay awake all night wondering if they can pay the bills,” Kelly said at the sleep-out.

He and others were bundled up in matching yellow and blue sweaters and scarves as they set up chairs and sleeping bags in a tight circle on the street outside City Hall Park. They snacked and chatted happily despite the unusually cool and windy evening for this time of year.  Bright and early the next morning, the group reconvened with a press conference and were joined by elected officials.
Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about politics for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting https://bit.ly/amnews1.

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