Central City Concern workers push for better wages

AFSCME Local 88 members rallied outside Central City Concern locations in Northwest Portland June 30. Joined by Scabby the Rat and fat cat inflatables, workers demanded raises in line with recent cost of living increases. Further bargaining sessions are scheduled for July. | PHOTO BY COLIN STAUB

By COLIN STAUB

When Portland nonprofit Central City Concern proposed to increase wages by less than half the current rate of inflation, its AFSCME-represented workers bristled.

AFSCME Local 88’s previous three-year contract with the homeless services organization expired June 30. In negotiations for a new contract, the two sides have reached tentative agreement on many items, including a freeze in the employee share of health care costs, a new paid holiday (Indigenous Peoples Day), and more employer funding to help clinical staff get licensure and continuing education. But pay is a sticking point.

Central City Concern recently doubled its wage offer from 3% to 6% for the first year of the new contract, but that’s still significantly below the 8.6% inflation rate reported by the federal government. AFSCME is pushing for a 9% raise in year one, and 4% and 3% in the second and third years.

The low raise offer struck a bad tone, workers say, because Central City Concern was recently approved to receive $3.8 million in “workforce stability” funding from the Oregon Health Authority (OHA), 75% of which must go toward wages, benefits or bonuses. In late May OHA started distributing the funds, which were allocated by legislation that was approved during this year’s short session.

“When you see an employer get an award like $3.8 million and then they come back to you with a wage increase that doesn’t even meet inflation, it’s defeating,” said Charlotte Garner, a substance use disorder case manager who’s worked for Central City Concern for about four years. Garner is a member of AFSCME Local 88’s bargaining team. She says Central City Concern was well known for paying higher-than-standard wages for counselors about 10 years ago. But small raises since then haven’t kept pay competitive, even as the job has gotten tougher for workers.

“Everyone is feeling the effects of the pandemic,” Garner said. “We’re burnt out, we’re tired, and we’re barely scraping by with our wages the way inflation has been.”

AFSCME represents about 300 of 1,000 total Central City Concern workers. Currently the minimum wage for union workers is $16.50 while the minimum nonunion wage is $15.

In a statement emailed to the Labor Press, a spokesperson for Central City Concern said management intends to work collaboratively with AFSCME to make Central City Concern one of the best places to work in Oregon, and that the nonprofit is committed to fair treatment of employees and to providing them “a sense of belonging and inclusion.”

It’s clear workers feel an affinity for the organization. During a June 30 rally outside the nonprofit’s locations in Northwest Portland, speakers said that’s why people stick around despite the wage stagnation. But the economic realities are making that a difficult trade-off for workers like Garner.

“As a single parent, I’m the only income in the house, and the reality is I’m just a step away from most of the people that I serve,” she said.

Another bargaining session was set for July 13, after this issue went to print.

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