Member Blog: Working Bridges Perspectives on Supporting our Essential Workforce

Essential workers with non-remote job functions keep Vermont strong. Whether it’s the hospital environmental services worker sanitizing rooms, the production employee that manufactures essential goods, the restaurant worker delivering a meal curbside, or a licensed nursing assistant (LNA) providing care in a long-term care residential setting, we rely on their expertise, skill, and ability to fully show up and be present at work. The context of work during a pandemic has increased awareness of the strain placed on essential workers, many of whom are women, black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). In the last three years alone, United Way’s Working Bridges Resource Coordination team, which partners with businesses to support employees and improve retention, helped to stabilize over 1500 employees and students; the number of service interactions continues to nearly double year over year.”  Thirty percent of employees served identified as BIPOC and many employees identify as New Americans for whom English is a second, third, or fourth language.

Resource Coordinators meet with employees onsite in 12 of the largest workplaces in our region to help navigate resources such as housing, transportation, childcare, health care, education, and more.  Strong utilization reflects both the increase in needs employees have as well as the challenges and complexity of accessing services and support during a tumultuous last year that brought many human service partners great challenges and capacity constraints.  As businesses raise wages, many essential employees that experience scarcity of resources are over-income for supportive benefits such as 3SquaresVT, emergency housing, fuel assistance, and housing subsidies, creating a “benefit cliff” that places workers worse-off, and sometimes taking workers out of the workforce entirely.  One employee who met with their Resource Coordinator said, “I don’t know why I even try to work. If I do, I can’t afford my rent,” in reference to losing eligibility for a Section 8 housing voucher.

At a time when Vermont’s workforce is shrinking and companies need all hands-on deck, it is vital that we bring an equity lens to systems that keep people out of the workforce.  With generous support from United Way of Northwest Vermont and Vermont Community Foundation, Working Bridges is partnering with Rhino Foods to provide robust wraparound support, education, and integration through an “Open Hiring Pilot” to examine the systems and structures both in work and community that help or hinder employees with barriers to employment such as previous incarceration history or substance use disorder. The pilot provides 20 hours of onsite resource coordination fully integrated into the company and opportunities to innovate systems that improve employee retention and financial stability. Open Hiring allows companies to shed practices and policies that keep people out and creates opportunity by doing away with things like background checks and formal interviews. Open Hiring can be a strategy in inclusion and equity with many positive impacts such as a stronger recruiting pipeline, lower recruiting costs, lower turnover, and increased employee loyalty.

Whether it’s health and human service safety nets and the unintended impact of eligibility and participation requirements on workers, or hiring practices locking people out of gainful employment, United Way’s Working Bridges brings business partners, community nonprofits, government, philanthropy, and best practices together to address the most challenging workforce infrastructure issues. Through collective action, there is opportunity for a fundamental shift in what the future of work looks like if we can address the essential resources that keep Vermonters working and increase cross-sector partnership to leverage strengths and assets.