Tina Padilla grew up in a part of Northeast Los Angeles with a heavy gang presence. Intent on breaking the “generational curse,” as she calls it, and having just completed a prison stint, in 2013 she began volunteering as a violence interrupter. She was deployed to mediate street conflicts before they escalated to gunfire. Eventually, a paid position came up, and she took it. Her pay was $16.80 an hour. A mother of five, Padilla had to take a second job cleaning a women’s gym at night, which she juggled with college classes. She lived in a one-room apartment with her youngest daughter and relied upon donations from family members and her church.

She endured the financial hardship because she believed in the work. “All my struggles, my tears, my heartaches, they all paid off because none of my kids went to that lifestyle that I had,” she said. 

Now, Padilla is a program manager at Breaking Through Barriers To Success, a violence prevention group, where she oversees a staff of eight interrupters who patrol the very streets where she grew up. But money remains tight. As a supervisor, she earns around $50,000 a year, paid hourly, and she does not receive overtime. Her staffers make around $16 an hour — just like she did back in 2013. Half of them have other jobs: driving for Uber and Lyft, working pre-dawn shifts at a warehouse, setting up tents for a movie company. Padilla said her group recently helped a 21-year-old client get a job at Walmart for $18 an hour. “My staff that’s been doing this work 10, 15 years are barely making that,” she said. 

Padilla says she and her staffers deserve healthier salaries, but says that her organization doesn’t have the power to raise their pay. Like many violence intervention groups, the majority of Breaking Through Barriers To Success’ funding comes from city government. Los Angeles officials also approve the group’s budget, she said. Violence interruption groups that are contracted by the Mayor’s Office of Gang Reduction & Youth Development (GRYD) are directed  to use a certain percentage of their funding on salaries and to keep them within a specific range. 

“The goal when reviewing and approving budgets is not to dictate where and how contractors should use their funds but to ensure that funds are being intentionally used to further GRYD’s mission; it’s a collaborative process,” Alex Comisar, the deputy communications director for Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, told The Trace in an email. “There are fiscal guidelines for raises and cost of living increases, however contractors may ask for a deviation from those guidelines to increase pay.”

Padilla supports a new push by the Los Angeles Intervention Coalition (LAIC), an association of gang intervention groups, which is asking the city for more funding so they can set a minimum salary of $45,000 for violence interrupters. Around 120 intervention workers patrol the streets each day in Los Angeles, and they make between $32,000 and $38,000 a year, which works out to between $480 and $570 a week after taxes. The work can be dangerous, as feuding factions are often armed, and some workers are on call 24/7. 

The coalition points to its role in driving down gang-related retaliatory shootings in pre-pandemic Los Angeles, efforts that have saved not just lives but an estimated $11.5 million a year in criminal justice costs. The LAIC also wants to hire more than 600 intervention workers, which would reduce the strain on existing employees who’ve been toiling in pandemic conditions for a year.

“They are burnt out,” said Fernando Rejón, executive director of Urban Peace Institute, one of the groups in the coalition. “The city wants more and more from them, but they’re not provided the flexible resources and support that they need to actually be effective, to take care of their families, to help them survive COVID if they contract it.”

Since last spring, violence interrupters’ duties have expanded to include virus education and food distribution, and as government offices have closed or curtailed their hours, workers are increasingly called upon to connect people to social services and jobs. Meanwhile, gun violence continues to rise.

“The Mayor understands the dangers of this work and that intervention workers went above and beyond during the pandemic,” Comisar said. “He has and will continue to be a champion for this work.”

In other cities, some leaders of anti-violence organizations are also calling for increased pay for their workers. “Nationwide, none of us are receiving what we should,” said Derrick “Baba” Rogers, the program director at 414Life, a city-funded anti-violence group in Milwaukee. As The Trace reported last year, the group’s budget for fiscal year 2020 was $400,000 — a sum that covered salaries for a staff of 10. Violence interrupters there start at $40,000 a year. To avoid financial stress, they’d need to be making at least $60,000, Rogers said. Workers put in “40-hour plus” weeks and use what little free time they have to work side jobs, most often as Uber drivers, he said.

While they’re considered essential workers, “their value in society is still unrecognized,” Rogers said. “They possess a very specific skill set that not a lot of people have — the ability to detect the potential for gun violence. But they’re not seen as credible professionals.” He says that’s partly because there’s still a stigma around people with a criminal background, which is often a prerequisite for the job. That background, and their success at transcending it, is what makes them credible messengers to the people they’re trying to reach.

“These people in the streets and the community, they’re not going to just listen to anybody,” Padilla said. “Because somebody who comes in with the degree on the wall and says, ‘Oh, I understand your pain,’ no you don’t understand it unless you’ve been through it.”

Vaughn Bryant, who leads Communities Partnering 4 Peace (CP4P), a collaborative of more than a dozen gun violence prevention groups in Chicago, said the low pay is in line with other professions, particularly social work. Crisis counselors for children and adolescents make about $35,000 a year in Illinois, he says. “And these are people with degrees. When you’re getting a frontline job it’s typically not going to be high-paying.” A few years ago the groups in CP4P agreed to set a minimum salary of $36,000 a year and full benefits for street outreach workers, who connect people to job opportunities, behavioral health services, and education. Violence interrupters, who diffuse conflicts on the ground, are one step below street outreach workers on the CP4P career ladder and don’t have a set minimum salary or benefits. They make about $28,000, he said.

The way Bryant sees it, violence interruption is a profession like any other, with entry-level grunt work, room for advancement, and incremental pay increases. “The more we can give you skills and the more we can influence you to get education, the more you can take a path that can lead to more money. And I think we’ve done that. We’ve created a minimum standard.”

After the onset of the pandemic last spring, Bryant told my colleague Lakeidra Chavis that there was an effort to get hazard pay for street outreach workers in the CP4P coalition. Since then, “some organizations were able to get it done… depending on their size and their resources,” but not all, he said. Going forward, “I think people could potentially build in bonuses. I think that’s just something that each organization has to be creative about.” At least 10 workers in the coalition have survived a bout with COVID, he said.

LAIC in Los Angeles is also asking that intervention workers — who also educate residents about the corona virus and distribute PPE and food in communities with high infection rates — receive hazard pay, which the coalition defines as “additional pay for performing hazardous duty or work that causes extreme physical discomfort and distress which is not adequately alleviated by protective devices and is deemed to impose a physical hardship.” At least one street outreach worker in the coalition lost his life to the virus last year. 

Rogers, in Milwaukee, said his small team of violence interrupters — there are seven of them — brought up hazard pay last month after a well-known street outreach worker with Safe Streets in Baltimore was fatally shot. The killing rattled the group, and served as a reminder that they’re in the middle of both a pandemic and a gun violence epidemic that are unfolding alongside each other. They haven’t broached the topic of unionizing yet, Rogers said, but added, “I’m quite sure that conversation is right around the corner.”

Padilla and Rejón said some street outreach workers in L.A. have discussed unionizing but the idea hasn’t gained traction. Rejón said he doesn’t think the profession is standardized enough yet. “There is a need for more organizing and strengthening of the field before we get there,” he said. “We also need to increase the credibility and understanding of the field nationally.” That includes organized labor: “In L.A., we’ve learned that even local council offices don’t understand or fully appreciate [violence interrupters’] role in driving down violence.” 

Bryant says he wouldn’t be surprised if the subject came up among violence interrupters in Chicago. He’s managed unionized labor forces before, and says that while he generally supports organized labor, he’s concerned it will make it harder to make staffing decisions. “We don’t want to make it more difficult if we have the wrong person doing a job because this job is so personal,” he said.

Many violence interrupters see the work as a calling, but if they can’t support their families, they could be forced to find side jobs, hobbling vital gun violence reduction efforts. Economic insecurity also raises the risk that the people mayors and police departments rely on to stem spiking gun violence might slip back into those behaviors themselves. “Part of peacemaking is not only being out there to help save lives and mediate tensions and conflict, but it’s also raising their families and breaking that cycle,” Rejón said. “When you provide jobs or opportunities for folks, it gives them the ability to pay their bills. And that alone helps to bring violence down.”