Matt Driscoll

A local nonprofit is raising its minimum wage to $15 an hour. Now, will others follow its lead?

In some ways, the decision was very easy.

In other ways, Korean Women’s Association executive director Troy Christensen says, it was not.

Come January, the Tacoma-based nonprofit organization Christensen oversees will raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour.

What’s clear is that the move — which was unanimously approved by KWA’s board this month — will have financial implications, for employees and the organization they work for.

Part of that will mean a trade-off, potentially impacting the number of individuals KWA is able to serve in the future. The association helps provide services ranging from in-home care and senior wellness to domestic violence assistance and affordable housing.

Despite this legitimate risk, it was the right decision and one that should lead to some difficult but necessary conversations and perhaps even some organizational soul searching in Tacoma’s nonprofit sector.

Christensen said he hopes it will inspire other nonprofits to reassess their pay scales and make providing a living wage a priority.

“We all agreed on the same values, and that we wanted our employees to have a living wage, or as close to it as we could get,” Christensen said of the board’s decision, adding that the KWA “really believes that pay and benefits are the best equalizers of social justice.”

Ultimately, he said, that’s what sealed the decision.

The trade-off KWA is willing to risk shows why other well-meaning nonprofits might not be ready — or able — to jump on the $15 an hour bandwagon just yet.

Currently, Washington’s minimum wage is $11.50 an hour; in 2019 it will increase to $12 an hour, and by 2020 it will stand at $13 an hour.

According to Christensen, KWA employs approximately 1,200 people. More than 1,000 of them are in-home caregivers. Covered by a 2017-2019 union approved by the state Legislature last year, every one of them will make at least $15 an hour come January. This will reverberate up the pay scale.

That contract, which was championed by the local Service Employees International Union 775 and strongly supported in Olympia by KWA, served as the last nudge and impetus for the nonprofit making the jump to $15 an hour across the board, Christensen said.

The board’s recent vote means that now, in addition to KWA’s in-home caregivers, nearly 100 employees — working as cooks, drivers, office assistants and advocates in the agency’s domestic violence assistance program — will also receive raises in January. Some already are making $15 an hour, and their pay will be bumped up accordingly.

Again, repercussions.

Like nearly every nonprofit, KWA sustains itself on a mix of fee-for-service contracts and government and private grants. The money is limited, meaning that increasing payroll will limit the organization’s ability to expand services.

Christensen stressed that current services will be maintained, nothing will be lost and no employees will be laid off because by the move since KWA is “in a good enough financial position right now to be able to make that happen.”

He also said that hasn’t always been the case and that the decision to pay employees “as close to a living wage as possible” will factor into how the organization expands — or doesn’t expand — in the future.

“If we didn’t raise the minimum wage, we might be able to provide services to more people,” Christensen says. “That’s a difficult trade-off. But being able to ensure that our staff (earns a living wage), in this case, overrode our desire to grow.”

When Christensen talks about growing, he’s not talking about increasing revenue or bolstering the rainy day fund. Like every social-justice oriented nonprofit I know, KWA’s primary concern is lifting as many people up as possible. Often, in the nonprofit world, this means putting the mission above all else, even if it means long hours and plenty of personal sacrifices for those in the trenches.

Talk to those immersed in this kind of necessary work, and most will say the same thing: They’re understaffed, overworked and underfunded. They’re all doing the best they can, knowing that there’s always another person who deserves help who they just don’t have the capability to serve.

That’s a difficult reality, and it leads to tough decisions — including ones that can keep wages relatively low.

However, the question KWA’s decision presents is an important one for local nonprofits to truly consider: Is that deal really worth it, especially for organizations working to address things like poverty and social justice issues?

For KWA, the answer became clear, and it provides a lead that others should consider following.

“It’s certainly worth a larger community discussion among nonprofits that are trying to help people who are low-income,” Christensen said. “It’s difficult for us to ask our employees with a straight face to help our clients out of poverty if we’re paying them poverty wages ourselves.”

As it should be.

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.