By COLIN STAUB
Tired of wage stagnation that’s driving high staff turnover, workers at nonprofit homeless services provider New Avenues For Youth are forming a union. Three dozen workers and supporters marched into the group’s offices on Southwest Ninth Avenue and Oak Street in downtown Portland on Dec. 6. Workers filed into Executive Director Sean Suib’s office, announced their aim to affiliate with AFSCME Local 1790, and requested voluntary recognition. Colin Parker, who works to help clients with their resumes, told Suib that workers had formed the New Avenues Workers Union and handed him a letter explaining why.
“Our turnover vastly outpaces our peer organizations and the national rates for our field, both among workers and management, a fact that goes unacknowledged and unaddressed,” the letter states. “Simply put, we are under-compensated, under-resourced, under-trained, and under-valued.”
The letter adds that for management to voluntarily recognize the union would be a “boon to the standing of New Avenues in our community” and would send a strong public statement.
“We have strong majority support from workers. We would love for this to be a collaborative arrangement,” Parker told Suib. “But we are ready to file for an election with the NLRB if necessary.”
Suib said he would get back to the workers as soon as he had a chance to look through the letter and talk to others in management. At press time, New Avenues For Youth had not yet voluntarily recognized the union.
New Avenues For Youth was founded in 1997 to serve a growing need for services specific to homeless youth. Today, its programs include drop-in day services (offering meals, rest areas, showers and internet access), transitional housing, help finding and applying for jobs, and more. The organization has about 120 workers and an additional 30 on-call staff members. Workers started organizing in May, and they’ve seen about 60% turnover just since then, Parker told the Labor Press. Worker attrition is one of the main reasons they’re organizing.
“I want to fight for better wages, better time off after critical incidents, and to make this work emotionally sustainable and financially sustainable,” said Nicolle Marie, who works in New Avenues For Youth’s Promoting Avenues to Employment (PAVE) department, helping clients find jobs. She’s worked there for a year and four months, just shy of the average staff tenure of a year and a half. Wages are a big reason for the turnover, she says: New Avenues For Youth’s lowest wage recently hit $20 an hour, while the Portland-area living wage (according to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator) is $21.60 per hour.
Besides wage increases, workers say they want to get worker and client representation on the group’s board of directors. The board is currently dominated by Portland-area developers, realtors, human resources directors and other business executives. Bringing a worker voice to the board would introduce a perspective from people directly affected by the board’s decision-making.
“Our work is not suited to top-down, corporate-style hierarchical structure,” the organizing committee wrote in the letter delivered to management. “The stakes for our youth are too high to leave the most meaningful decisions solely to a board of directors primarily composed of business figures and an executive team that neither work directly with workers, nor interact with our youth in meaningful ways. We are particularly concerned about decisions being made by individuals who could profit from housing scarcity and community displacement. We strongly believe that in order to ensure that ethical and effective decisions are made, we, as direct services workers, must have a voice.”
New Avenues For Youth is part of the Homeless Youth Continuum, a collaboration of Portland-area organizations providing similar services for homeless youth. The other members are Janus Youth Programs, Outside In and Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA). At Janus, residential treatment workers unionized with AFSCME in 2015, and workers at Janus’s Street Light/Porch Light homeless youth shelter are represented by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) Local 650. Outside In workers unionized with AFSCME in 2018.