Pilot jobs program gets funded

Emilie Kornheiser, workforce development director at Youth Services, plans to finish writing a job description for a coordinator to run Work Today, a jobs pilot program.

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BRATTLEBORO — A pilot run of a jobs program called Work Today has gotten the green light.

"Essentially, it's spurred on by community concerns about panhandling and the challenge that many people find in maintaining steady work and the incredible economic disparity in our community," said Emilie Kornheiser, workforce development director at Youth Services and state representative for the Windham-2-1 district in Brattleboro. "I want to make sure that we're not thinking that because someone is asking for money on the street, they must immediately be shuffled off to the program. It's really important that this program is voluntary, that people are there ready to work and interested in working."

On Tuesday, the Select Board unanimously approved a contribution of $65,000 for a test run of Work Today. Kornheiser said it will be easier to get other funding once the program is off the ground.

The pilot will last three months and will include three days of work a week for about 10 participants. A part-time coordinator would be hired at Youth Services to help get people to job sites, check in on them during the workday, and provide services and support during their lunch breaks.

Kornheiser described Work Today as "a low-barrier work program" as it would require less identification documentation than other jobs and participants would commit to working on a day-to-day basis. Examples of some potential tasks included cleaning up garbage or repainting walls. Food and counseling services would be provided during lunch breaks.

Youth Services is "essentially serving as a temp agency," Kornheiser said, expecting the town and later other employers to contract for services without taking jobs away from other community members.

Participants will get $15 per hour after a six-hour day of work. Taxes would be deducted before the money is disbursed.

Kornheiser said in the future, something similar to electronic benefit transfer cards may be given to regular participants. She also is looking at how bank accounts could be set up where it is impossible to overdraft.

"I don't want to wax too philosophical about the why," she said when asked to explain the goal of the program. "But over the last 20 years in America, we've seen a really significant increase in the swath of folks who are operating in an unbelievably low cash position — people who might have access to food, who are not necessarily hungry because we have food shelves and soup kitchens and food stamps. But as cash benefits given by the state have become tighter and tighter, with more and more restrictions and hoops that we need to jump through, including work requirements often, people are less and less likely to have any cash in their pockets. And everyone needs a little cash in their pocket. Food stamps don't pay for toilet paper amongst a number of other things."

Kornheiser also lauded the value participants might get out of "purposeful time spent" and an increase in accountability.

Town Manager Peter Elwell said the municipal contribution will be considered an unbudgeted expense "so it will need to be covered by other savings in the budget or revenues that are collected in greater amounts than are budgeted." He estimated the town has ended each of the last fiscal years with surpluses of more than $400,000 to $900,000.

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Dick DeGray of Brattleboro said he could keep three or four people busy with beautification efforts downtown.

"I am thrilled to be of help in any way," said Stephanie Bonin, executive director of the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance, "whether it's as a conduit to find employers or it's DBA itself as the employer."

Kornheiser said she is finishing up writing a job description and hopes to move "fairly quickly" on getting Work Today started.

Her group established this year a low-profit limited liability company, DemoGraphix, which is used for managing payroll and hiring for a youth employment program. Work Today also will be run by DemoGraphix.

Select Board Vice Chairman Tim Wessel said he has "a lot of complicated feelings" about the program but called it worthwhile. Wondering about the optics of providing $15 per hour when other employers in the community are paying less, he asked why minimum wage would not be offered to participants.

"Because it's really important to us that if we're doing this, we're doing it with dignity," Kornheiser said. "If we're modeling for people and building a program that's about the dignity of work, the purpose of work, meaningful work, and we're interested in getting money in people's pockets, and we're interested in building a community where everyone is served by the economy and everyone can benefit from the economy, then I think $15 is the bare minimum we can set up for them."

She said other benefits come with being a salaried employee.

Wessel also wondered if the pilot program could run two days a week. Kornheiser said three days brings "an important rhythm" for workers, employers and supervisors. The pay will not be enough for someone to afford a motel room for a week, said Select Board member Daniel Quipp.

Board member Elizabeth McLoughlin also favored the three-day approach.

"I appreciate how difficult it was to pull this together with workman's comp and all these other insurances," she said. "It's just a difficult program to get off the ground and I'm anxious to see that it might work."

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.