After about 15 years in office management and human resources, Jeanine Caughlin decided to switch careers.
That was eight years ago. Caughlin earned a master’s degree and landed her dream job. For the past year, she’s been teaching English and citizenship classes to immigrants and refugees at Heartland Alliance, one of the city’s largest social service agencies, with locations throughout Chicago.
“I was beyond thrilled when I got this job,” Caughlin, of Albany Park, said. “I had seen the signs for Heartland. I had known people here and there who worked at Heartland.”
Caughlin, 54, took a pay cut from her past career because she wanted to help immigrants “have agency in their lives, to have a fulfilled life, to have wealth to improve their situation to do better for their kids and to enjoy the freedoms that we take for granted.”
She said she loves the work, but the pay, at just below $40,000 a year, has put her in a precarious financial situation. Her utility bills have gone up about 60% in the past year, grocery costs are rising with inflation and the condo building she lives in is requiring a special assessment for repairs. Caughlin also worries that she can’t find a way to “set aside a little bit every year to take care of my health.”
“It’s death by a thousand cuts,” Caughlin said. “The most frustrating thing to me is that I am a frugal and thoughtful person with a monthly budget … and I’m grateful to have any full-time job with benefits.”
Caughlin is one of the more than 500 human services workers in a contract battle with one of the oldest and largest social service nonprofits in Chicago. She and others say the low pay, long hours and the understaffing throughout the organization present an irony for hundreds of Heartland employees: They themselves feel like they qualify for the nonprofit’s services.
“It just seems incongruous that I’m having to fight for the basics of life when this organization wants to help people rise out of poverty and promote equity,” Caughlin said.
Leaders in the United Human Services Workers — a unit of the National Organization of Legal Services Workers/UAW Local 2320, which represents Caughlin and her colleagues — said Heartland is devaluing its employees during a time when social service workers are more crucial than ever.
“Without the workers here, and the commitment that we have to the people that we service, this organization could not exist,” said Felicia Turner-Suarau, a housing resource specialist at Heartland and one of the union leaders.
Turner-Suarau, 61, who has been at Heartland for 12 years, said the union’s last contract expired this summer and negotiations have not been going well. The main sticking point is over wage increases for the 500-plus union members.
The union’s last offer was a 5% increase the first year, a $3,000 flat raise for all members to ensure equitable raises for lower-income workers the second year, and 5% the third year, plus bonuses for different groups of workers.
According to union members, Heartland presented its final, best offer on Monday: a 4% raise the first year of the contract, followed by 3.2% raises the following two years, plus the bonuses for different groups of workers.
Turner-Suarau said she and other union leaders are in the process of hearing from members and deciding whether to strike. She said the final offer from management doesn’t cover last year’s inflation or acknowledge the important work of the union members during the pandemic. She also said management’s refusal to offer back pay from the new contract period, which would have started in July, has been a point of contention with union members — many of whom have master’s degrees and most of whom make between $35,000 to $50,000.
“No one came to this organization to get rich, but [top executives] are,” Turner-Suarau said. According to Heartland’s most recent 990 filing, CEO Evelyn Diaz made more than $350,000, and five other executives made over $200,000.
Turner-Suarau also said management had sent a letter to workers suggesting that union leaders were spreading false information to get members to vote for a strike. She said management’s claims are false and that it was “fear-mongering” to discourage a strike.
Heartland Alliance did not agree to an interview. Instead officials sent a statement: “We greatly appreciate our staff’s commitment to our mission, and the life-changing support they provide to those we serve. Like other nonprofits, our primary funding comes from public and private grants, and we operate within the budgets of those grants. We have already secured additional money for staff compensation from several of our funders. In addition, we have promised the Union, in writing, to continue to advocate for increased grant funds for staff pay, which will also support staff recruitment.”
More work for employees, lesser services for vulnerable populations
Founded by social reformer Jane Addams in 1888, Heartland Alliance — then called Travelers and Immigrants Aid — has expanded its services beyond the immigrant population over the years. It now provides health care, housing, violence prevention and legal aid to various vulnerable populations in the city to the tune of $177 million, according to its 2020 annual report.
According to its website, Heartland also operates in seven countries around the world, serves more than 500,000 people each year and employs more than 1,600 workers.
For Michael Brieschke, a housing case manager who started at Heartland in 2017, the expansion has come at a price — not just for workers, but the people they help.
“People are leaving because they’re not getting paid enough; they’re taking jobs that pay more,” said Brieschke, 59, who says he makes about $47,000 a year after 12 years in this field.
The turnover, he added, has resulted in understaffing, which leads to more work for employees and delays and lesser services for vulnerable populations. He said on his team, which targets homeless HIV-positive people, two vacancies were open for over a year and about 40 participants have not had a consistent case manager for more than a year.
“How do we expect our participants to be successful if they don’t have a consistent person to walk alongside them on their journey?” Brieschke asked.
He added that management often touts new funding streams, but those are often for new programs.
“I think it’s great if we can expand our programs,” Brieschke said. “But how can we look at expanding our programs when we can’t even hire enough people to manage the programs that we already have?”
Caughlin, the ESL teacher, said ultimately, those funding questions and financial decisions are management’s job.
“If they can hold me accountable for my work, the workers can hold management accountable for the financial health of the company,” she said, adding that her fight is more for her colleagues who make even less than she does.
As she waited for a new contract this week, Caughlin began training for a part-time job doing online language assessments for English learners. With the gig, she said she expects to work six-day weeks until her financial situation improves.
She added: “I don’t see things getting better — each month I’m digging myself into a deeper hole.”
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.