Supporting Work Project: About the Project
Bringing Business, Community and the Public Sector Together to Help Families
|An SWP Grantee:
Step Up Savannah
Imagine a community where the Chamber of Commerce, major employers, the Mayor, and social service agencies join forces to address the toughest problem hindering its economic development and prosperity: persistent poverty. This is the mission of Step Up Savannah, a unique collaboration of almost 100 private, non-profit and public partners seeking to improve the business climate in Savannah by tackling the workforce, health, education and housing needs of the city’s poorest residents. As one of the eleven sites in the Ford Foundation funded Supporting Work Project, Step Up Savannah has engaged hospitals, hotels and major national chain stores in an effort to increase the spending power and financial literacy of employees struggling to make ends meet. Publicly funded work supports (such as tax credits, energy assistance and children’s health insurance), combined with financial literacy, not only put more money into employees’ pockets, but lower turnover by stabilizing their home and work lives. The business and public sector partners in Step Up also know that these work supports bring much needed resources into the Savannah economy. As the President of Savannah Economic Development Authority and Step Up Leadership Board Member has said, “ Poverty is a business issue as much as it is a human issue.”
The Supporting Work Project works with nine local and two national grantee organizations. In addition to their grant, these partners receive technical assistance, participate in a learning network, and evaluate their lessons learned. In each locality, nonprofit partners work with employers to help low- and moderate-wage employees access public and private benefits. Partners include two local United Ways, a Goodwill agency, a community action agency, a family resource center, two non-profits affiliated with local Chambers of Commerce, and a human services agency. The local partners are:
- Center for Economic Progress (Chicago, IL)
- Community Action Project of Tulsa County (Tulsa, OK)
- Family Resource Center @ Gorham (Gorham, NH)
- Goodwill Industries of San Antonio (San Antonio, TX)
- Human Services Coalition (Miami, FL)
- SF Works, an affiliate of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce (San Francisco, CA)
- Step Up Savannah, an affiliate of the Savannah Chamber of Commerce (Savannah, GA)
- United Way of Central Iowa (Des Moines, IA)
- United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona (Tucson, AZ)
In addition to these local projects, two grantees, Ceridian and FEI/Seedco, are working nationally with employers to integrate the Supporting Work Project into Employee Assistance and Work Life Programs.
Each site works with a number of employers to help low- and moderate-wage employees access public benefits and other financial education and support. These employers represent a range of industry sectors, scope, and sizes.
- Across the nation, nearly 90 employer partners participate in the Supporting Work Project.
- Employers are concentrated in four sectors: hotel/restaurant/food service, health care/home care, education/child care/nonprofit/public sector, and grocery/retail. These four sectors represent about 85% of current employer partners in the Supporting Work Project.
- About half of the employer partners are local businesses and about two-fifths are national in scope. National employers that are working with more than one local non-profit Supporting Work Project grantee include Macy's, Marriott and Westin hotels. Other major national corporations include Aramark, Hyatt, Holiday Inn, Intercontinental, Lowes, Home Depot, and Ikea.
Grantees have found it crucial to get buy-in from employers at three key levels—the CEO, the Human Resources department, and the front-line supervisors of these employees. If any one of these is missing, the employees do not get a strong, clear and compelling message about the program. Working people with families are incredibly busy; they also may be reluctant to discuss their family finances. Having paid release time from employers and a private room to do screening for benefits greatly facilitates program participation. At least some buy-in at all three levels is often necessary to obtain agreements from employers for these types of arrangements.
Benefits & Services
Each grantee and employer partner works to help low- and moderate-wage employees secure a range of benefits and services. These can be divided into five major categories:
- Government-funded means-tested work supports, such as Food Stamps, Medicaid, State Children's Health Insurance Program, and child care subsidies. These benefits largely target the lowest-income families.
- Free tax preparation and tax credits, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit, and the Dependent Care Tax Credit. Free tax preparation and these tax credits are generally available to families earning more moderate incomes.
- Benefits and services provided by other public and private entities in communities, such as food banks, low-cost prescriptions, tuition assistance, and financial products adapted to their needs. Many of these programs have the advantage of having no income ceiling for participation.
- Employer-sponsored benefits, including health care, retirement, resource and referral, etc.
- Financial counseling and financial literacy training that helps families avoid predatory financial systems and use the income they have earned in ways that are more likely to improve their economic stability and security.
Grantee and employer partners have worked to find the right set of public and private benefits to offer employees. The income eligibility for some means-tested programs (Food Stamps, for example) is very low- and many employees do not qualify for this public benefit. Nonetheless, with high food and fuel prices, increasing variability in hours and the financial crisis, so many working families who do not qualify for means tested benefits are struggling to make ends meet. Grantees therefore have found it helpful to offer the broad range of benefits and services listed above, so as to appeal to a wide spectrum of employees. Offering this range of benefits also overcomes the challenge of stigmatizing the program.
Grantee partners use a variety of strategies to help low- and moderate-wage employees improve their economic stability. These strategies range from larger-level community engagement to working one-one-one with individual employees. Strategies include:
- Building community support for improving the lives of low-wage employees and working toward policy reforms that simplify access to government-funded work supports;
- Building relationships with employers, educating them about public and private work supports, and together crafting a plan to help their employees access public and community benefits;
- Reaching out to employees, generally targeting those making $15/hour or less, and educating them about the full range of government and community work supports, services, and tax credits;
- Providing financial education and counseling services to employees to help them avoid predatory lending schemes, improve their credit, become banked and use their income in ways that improve their financial health;
- Identifying those who are eligible for free tax preparation/EITC and referring them to volunteer run tax preparation (IRS-sponsored "VITA") sites; and
- Identifying those who are eligible for means-tested benefits and working one-on-one with the employee through the application process.
As many of the benefits and programs grantees are offering are publicly supported it is critical for grantees to remain abreast of changes in program eligibility rules and requirements. Grantees have advocated for the expansion of benefit programs, and have worked collaboratively with government agencies to reduce paperwork and simplify application processes. Increasingly, employers are becoming allies in these efforts to reform public systems. The next year will bring some significant changes to the policy environment. For some programs, such as children’s health insurance and the EITC, income ceilings are likely to be raised and eligibility criteria expanded. Funding for other programs, however, could be cut back due to state and national budget constraints, resulting in a tightening of program eligibility requirements.
The Supporting Work Project is in its second year and grantee and employer partners are still exploring strategies and adjusting approaches in order to maximize results for employees and employers. The Families and Work Institute, in collaboration with MDRC, the grantees, and employer partners, are evaluating the effort.
During the first phase of the project, most sites focused on building community partnerships and relationships with employers, and reaching out to and educating employees about benefits and services. While full evaluation results will not be available until 2010, preliminary data show that:
- Sites have engaged almost 90 employers and have distributed educational material to over 200,000 employees. Nearly 20,000 employees have been educated more intensively about the full range of work supports, tax credits and community benefits;
- Thousands of participating employees have availed themselves of free tax preparation services, claiming thousands of dollars in tax credits, and avoiding the high fees and loan rates of paid tax preparers;
- A smaller number have been helped through the application process for means-tested public programs and have been found eligible for benefits;
- These tax credits and benefits not only assist individual families, but bring much needed dollars into local economies.