Rx for Change: Bending the Old Saw

Taken from the November/December 2015 issue of The Women's Health Activist Newsletter.

Sadly, in my own life, the old saw has all too often been true. When my cousin was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the right-wing think tank he worked for (the kind of place that likes to “prove” that class size does not affect student performance) kept him on full-time salary until his death, even though he could not go in to the office. A few years later, when my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, the good guy lefty organization I worked for showed no such care. Ten days before my mother died, and just before Christmas, they told me I would be laid off as of January 1st.

Recently a dear friend in her 60s, who is a lifelong mental health professional, left her State job to work for a not-for-profit mental health agency in a supervisory position. She took a $10,000 pay cut and, on top of that, only gets 2 weeks paid vacation for the next few years.

I could go on with examples in this vein, but my point here is not to flood you with stories. What I’d like is for those of us who run progressive organizations, or sit on their boards, to look critically at the way our employees are treated. We who work for small organizations in the not-for-profit world know all too well that our options for financially compensating staff are severely limited: we just can’t raise enough to pay people what they might make in larger organizations or in the for-profit world. Often, we can’t even hire enough people to adequately staff our organizations. As a result, we expect the people we hire to put in more than 100 percent by working long hours, and taking on too many responsibilities.

We don’t have any choice. We can only spend what we can raise. But we do have a choice about how we structure work and benefits to reflect the value we place on our staff. If non-profit leaders ask people to work for us, on what are essentially our projects, we'd better find ways to let staff know they are not expendable and that their efforts are valued. There are ways to do this that will not upend our budgets.

We want staff members to take ownership of their work, and to create plans to accomplish their goals. Targeted staff meetings or one-on-ones can help people explore their ideas. If we solicit staff input this way, we have to believe that the people who do the work have insights leadership might not have into how to improve, enhance, or enlarge the impact of their work. We also can examine supervision and interpersonal dynamics. Is the person being supervised getting what she needs? Is she being respected? Are office tensions that are unaddressed affecting staff’s work?

Making sure staff know that their input and perspectives are respected is not easy. To complicate matters, there are unstated power dynamics at play. Who has the power? Whose position is considered more valuable? Do people feel that their jobs will be jeopardized if they speak honestly?

Generous and creative benefits are another way to recognize the value of our workers.

Increasing vacation time is an easy way to do this. Let’s not make our decisions about what to offer based on what similar non-profit organizations do, but rather on the needs of people to recharge and rest from what is often hectic, high-pressure work. Personal leave, sick time, family medical leave, and flextime are all benefits that we can expand to enhance the workplace environment.

The NWHN has a benefit that I think is excellent: the organization provides a transit benefit to all its employees. The benefit is a monthly stipend that offsets the cost of transportation for staff. Although this type of thing adds to the budget, it is minimal compared to the goodwill it generates.

One of my pet peeves is unpaid lunchtime. Many non-profit organizations do not pay for their fulltime employees’ lunch breaks. A regular day is considered to be 9:00 am to 5:30 pm, or some version of that. I urge Executive Directors and boards to revisit this. It adds value to people’s work experience if we can simply include lunch breaks in their paid time.

These are just a few ideas. I haven’t even mentioned retirement accounts, or Flexible Savings Accounts (FSAs) for health care expenses that are not covered by health insurance, or even health insurance. I’m interested in your ideas, as both leaders and staff, about ways to improve the work environment. Contact me and perhaps, in a future newsletter, we can include your innovations in these areas.  Let’s find new ways to bend, if not break, the old saw.

Laura Kaplan authored The Story of Jane, and is an activist for women’s health, reproductive justice, and domestic violence. She served on the NWHN’s Board of Directors for 8 years and co-founded Woodstock Immigrant Support. Now retired, Laura continues her activism through volunteering.

Read more from Laura Kaplan.