How a rising minimum wage may impact the nonprofit sector

As the income inequality discussion continues to simmer across the country, municipal minimum wage ordinances have become hot topics of conversation in many cities. In January 2016, Seattle will implement its second step-up in the local minimum wage in 9 months, reaching $13 for many employers in the city and edging closer to a $15 an hour minimum that will apply to most firms by 2019. San Francisco will reach a $15 an hour minimum by July 2018. Yet cities as diverse as Birmingham, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Louisville have enacted or proposed similar minimum wage laws. It is too early to discern true impact of these local wage ordinances, but speculation abounds regarding whether or how the higher wage will affect firms and the earnings of low-wage workers.

Less prominent in debate and discussion about the minimum wage is the potential impact that higher minimum wage rates may have for nonprofit organizations. Nonprofits perform many critical functions in our communities—often serving the most at-risk and disadvantaged. Yet, fiscal constraints often place a low ceiling on what many nonprofits can pay frontline staff. As a result, many different types of nonprofit organizations—child care centers, home health care organizations, senior care providers—pay staff at rates near or below the targets set by the recent crop of local minimum wage laws. Our popular image of a minimum wage worker is the teen-age cashier at a drive-through window or the sales clerk at a retail store in the local strip mall, but many workers in these “helping professions” are being paid low wages.

Increases in the minimum wage are occurring at the same time that many nonprofit service organizations are confronted with fixed or declining revenue streams. Facing fiscal pressure, nonprofit service organizations may pursue one or more coping strategies. In addition to reductions in staffing or hours, commonly expected responses, nonprofits may cut back services offered, scale back service areas, or favor clients that can afford higher fees.

Such responses could reduce the amount and quality of the services provided to vulnerable populations. For example, elderly populations on fixed incomes may have fewer options for home care. Working poor parents may find higher child care costs prohibitively expensive. Employment service organizations may find it harder to place hard-to-serve jobseekers in jobs due to more competitive applicant pools.

At the same time, higher minimum wages could have positive consequences for nonprofit staffing and capacity. Higher wages could reduce employee turnover and increase staff morale and productivity. Organizations may not have to grapple with the contradiction of serving low-income persons, but paying modest wages.

The most recent set of wage ordinances take cities to unknown territory. Anticipating potential negative effects, Chicago has exempted individuals in subsidized employment programs from its recent minimum wage ordinance. The city of Seattle has set aside funds to help nonprofits meet the higher local minimum wage, but many nonprofit funding streams are beyond the city’s control and are not seeing similar adjustments.

In the coming years, more research on how local nonprofits are affected by local minimum wage laws needs to occur. We should expect there to be a mix of positive and negative effects within a particular nonprofit organization and across different types of organizations. Nonprofit organizations should be engaged as stakeholders in debates around higher local minimum wages. And, nonprofits should actively engage in research efforts to document the impact of higher wages. In particular, nonprofits should work to compile data that can compare staffing, service delivery, and program outcomes before and after wage laws phase-in. Such data could provide important insight into the impact of local wage ordinances.

We also should be careful not to confuse other challenges confronting the nonprofit sector with the impact of higher minimum wages. For example, private philanthropy to human service nonprofits has failed to keep up with rising need and declining public sector revenue streams in most communities—realities that may pose more serious challenges than minimum wage laws, but ones without an obvious scapegoat.

In the end, ongoing debate around local minimum wage ordinances should provide us with the opportunity to re-examine how we support community-based nonprofits as a society and assess whether that support fits with all that we expect the nonprofit sector to accomplish for children and families in our communities.