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Can a new program put cash in the pockets of those who need it most?

Brattleboro funds three-month pilot program offering day-labor stints

Youth Services is seeking to hire a full-time employment coordinator to oversee the Work Today Program. To learn more or to apply, visit youthservicesinc.org/careers.

BRATTLEBORO—“The number one goal is to get cash into people’s pockets,” said Emilie Kornheiser, director of workforce development for Youth Services. “It’s as simple as that.”

People in need can find multiple services in this town that provide a place to sleep or a meal, she said. Yet, moving from service to service also means that these community members operate in a cashless economy.

People still need to buy toilet paper, said Kornheiser. whose agency recently unveiled its Work Today Program to the Selectboard.

The program is intended to serve as a new sort of temp agency, connecting 10 temporary workers with daily work. They will receive $15 per hour for doing what organizers envision as custodial work, seasonal tasks, and simple municipal maintenance projects that fall through the cracks.

The board approved $65,000 for the town to essentially be the client for the three-month pilot program.

Kornheiser, who also represents District 1 in the Vermont House of Representatives, described the funding as “seed money.”

Youth Services will use funding to launch the program enough to prove it viable. From there, the organization can seek other funding through grants and bringing on other employers.

Kornheiser presented the funding request, and the board approved it, at its July 9 meeting.

Town Manager Peter Elwell said that “as a non-budgeted expense,” the $65,000 will come from savings. Through the course of a year, the town usually ends up saving money on operations and ends the fiscal year with a $400,000 to $900,000 surplus. Elwell said he felt confident that it will end this fiscal year with a similar surplus.

‘Work on demand’ with support available but no strings

At this early stage, the Youth Services Work Today Program will operate three days a week for three months.

Kornheiser described the “low-barrier work program” as a “work on demand.”

“We’ve been looking for a way for folks to find easier access to work,” she said. “When people are ready and able to work, they are able to make a few dollars, and when they are not, they are able to come back the next day or the next week.”

While many of Youth Services’ programs focus on young people up to age 24, some of its programs — such as its restorative justice program — serve people of all ages.

Kornheiser explained that on the work days, people will meet in the morning with the program coordinator. The coordinator will drive the workers to the job site.

During the six-hour work day, Youth Services will also provide lunch.

At the lunch break, the day workers will have the option to speak with people from social-service agencies. To participate in the work program, the workers need only work — they do not also need to participate in other social-service programs, she said.

At the end of the work day, the coordinator picks everyone up, drives them to the meeting point, and pays them. People will receive payment the same day that they work, she explained.

Kornheiser is looking into a variety of ways people can receive their pay — for example, a smart card like a debit card or electronic-benefits transfer card. Brattleboro Savings & Loan is also participating in discussions about helping participants open bank accounts, she said.

Each workday is a fresh start, Kornheiser said. Youth Services does not expect participants “to move along a specific continuum of work or service.”

The idea for a day-labor program has floated through the municipality and various human service organizations for approximately two years. It came up during several conversations with the Selectboard as community members raised concerns about people panhandling. They asked if a day-labor program could serve as a solution.

Groundworks Collaborative and the town have tried to launch such a program. Their efforts, however, met with substantial barriers, such as state labor laws and liability concerns.

Youth Services, however, was in the process of creating a youth-led business program, Kornheiser said.

The organization was able to fold the work-on-demand structure into the its new workforce development department. It created a low-profit limited liability company (L3C) that will cover the employment part of the program and will focus on workforce skills for people who may be in transition.

The Vermont Secretary of State’s office describes an L3C as a “hybrid nonprofit/for-profit entity.” Similar to a nonprofit, the company’s drive is charitable or educational. Like a for-profit company, an L3C can turn a profit to benefit an owner. Such companies do not receive corporate tax exemption as federally-recognized nonprofit charities would.

The three-month pilot program with the town will allow Youth Services to iron out any logistical wrinkles that could arise — for example, around transportation or payroll. It would also give Youth Services time to create other funding streams — such as grants — and build partnerships with other potential employers.

“It’s much easier to get funds once an idea has been tested and we can tell compelling stories to the people who control the dollars,” Kornheiser told the board. “We’re essentially serving as a temp agency, and the town — and eventually other employers in the area, we’re hoping — is serving as the employer that is contracting for those services.”

She stressed that Youth Services wanted to ensure that the temporary workers’ labor rights and safety are protected. It’s also important that the employers are protected from liability and that existing employees know that the temporary laborers aren’t replacing any existing jobs.

Kornheiser said that, over the last 20 years in the United States, the number of people living their lives with little cash in their pockets has increased. This program aims to provide some cash so people in need can “get by,” she said.

The state has a workforce shortage, and it can be easy to get a low-wage job, she said. At the same time, maintaining that full-time employment is hard. Workers struggle with auxiliary issues such as transportation and paying for child care and health care, she added.

So this program should help people fill in the cracks, she said.

‘Complicated feelings’ about compensation

Brattleboro resident Fric J. Spruyt asked if potential employers could screen the temporary workers.

According to Spruyt, he’s had issues with workers in recovery relapsing. Tools started disappearing, he said.

Kornheiser answered, no. That is the difference of going through an employment agency and hiring temporary employees rather than hiring someone directly.

She said that Youth Services may investigate bonding, a measure that the state is taking with people just leaving prison. She added that the organization will also carry some liability insurance.

Board member Tim Wessel said, “I have a lot of complicated feelings about this, but I’m impressed by the work you’ve done.”

He said he expected community members to have multiple reactions to the program, specifically the $15-per-hour wage. Why not pay minimum wage, which in Vermont is $10.78 an hour?

Kornheiser responded that, “it’s really important to us that if we’re doing this, that we’re doing it with dignity.”

She added that the youth the organization works with often receive a stipend at that same rate.

And if Youth Services hopes to model to people about purpose, the dignity of work, and building a community that serves all, and if everyone benefits from the economy, “then $15 an hour is the bare minimum.”

Wessel countered saying that some might question the hourly rate because it is more than many people working full-time earn.

Kornheiser reminded the audience that the majority of minimum-wage workers statewide are single moms and that it is important to think about the broader context.

She added, too, that day-workers are closer to contract workers than salaried employees in the sense that people doing contract work tend to charge higher rates because they are covering taxes, health insurance, and overhead themselves. Salaried employees receive a different set of benefits.

‘Huge amount of need’ is ‘mostly invisible’

In a separate interview with The Commons, Kornheiser hoped that the work program would help people build new connections in the community.

She explained that under capitalism, work is how many people integrate into their community. Work represents a person’s “worthy” contribution to society and is usually how one builds a support network of friends — therefore, she said, it can be harder for people not in the workforce to participate in their community.

Another goal of the Work Today pilot is to help workers slowly build the skills to enter the workforce permanently if the person wants to do so.

The program does not promise full-time work, however.

“There is a huge amount of need in this community which is mostly invisible,” she said.

People might focus on the activity of panhandling because it is the “visible edge” of people’s economic struggles, she said, but “[t]he bulk of it is really hidden from many of us.”

Kornheiser said that this work-on-demand program is one effort among many in the community to help people meet their economic needs. It is not, however, the be-all and end-all.

“I want to make sure that we’re not thinking because someone is asking for money on the street that they must be immediately shuffled off to this program,” she said. “It’s important that this program is voluntary.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #519 (Wednesday, July 17, 2019). This story appeared on page A4.

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