April 13, 2024

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Staffing agency gives vulnerable people a 2nd chance

Lisa Goodrich at her desk at Whitney Blake in Bellows Falls on Tuesday, September 13, 2022. Goodrich found employment and support through Working Fields, a staffing agency that helps place vulnerable people who face barriers to employment. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

When her employer announced the award in September, Lisa Goodrich couldn’t believe it.

A year into her job at Whitney Blake, a cable manufacturing company in Bellows Falls, Goodrich won the American Staffing Association’s National Staffing Employee All-Star award for the industrial sector. Her employer had nominated her, citing her hard work, resilience and courage.

“I guess I was, I was just so stunned. I couldn’t believe that people actually applied for it, actually, for me,” said the 43-year-old Springfield resident. 

A few years ago, Goodrich was in a very different place. 

It began with a bad relationship, an unsatisfying job and a struggle to make ends meet, and escalated to substance abuse and then jail. “I’ve done heroin. I’ve done coke. I’ve done crack pills,” she said quietly. Goodrich got sober 20 years ago but has had several relapses. The most recent one, about two years ago, landed her in jail for theft-related charges.

She now says she feels like she is above ground after being in a hole forever — thanks in no small part to having a fulfilling job.

Goodrich was placed at Whitney Blake through Working Fields, a South Burlington-based staffing agency that finds jobs for vulnerable populations who face barriers to employment. She is one of 265 people in Vermont who the staffing agency placed in 2021, according to its marketing director, Daryn Forgeron.

Lisa Goodrich, right, is congratulated by Karleen Cass, after Goodrich was was recognized with a National Staffing Employee All-Star award at her job at Whitney Blake in Bellows Falls on Tuesday, September 13, 2022. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The company was founded five years ago on the premise that people who have made mistakes but have accepted responsibility and are trying to improve their lives deserve another chance. It predominantly works with people in recovery from substance abuse disorder or those with criminal records.

Working Fields has assembled roughly 80 employer partners across Vermont, including American Flatbread, Casella, Darn Tough, Killington Resort and the University of Vermont Health Network, and a few in New Hampshire.

“By working with us, they know they’re getting individuals who are committed to turning their lives around and improving where they are at and are working with us because they want the support that we’re offering,” said Stuart “Mickey” Wiles, the Working Fields founder and CEO who himself has lived through substance abuse disorder and incarceration following an embezzlement conviction. 

Goodrich’s probation officer referred her to the agency.

“I came out of it,” she said, “and I know a lot of other people can make it if they get the right support.”

‘A lot to overcome’

In prison, Wiles had found himself among 1,200 incarcerated people, many from broken or dysfunctional families with no support — very dissimilar to his own experience growing up in privilege. 

In his assessment, they all wanted the same thing: to live a decent life, be treated fairly and be able to exist in society. But they also had a “high level of hopelessness,” he said, because of their backgrounds. 

“The fact of the matter is that people coming out of incarceration have many hurdles,” he said. “There’s a lot to overcome.” 

Studies have shown that employment reduces recidivism, but formerly incarcerated people face significant obstacles to finding stable jobs, especially in the years immediately following release, including processes such as background checks. 

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, formerly incarcerated people have an unemployment rate of over 27%, nearly five times higher than the unemployment rate for the general population.

People with substance abuse disorder also face higher rates of unemployment, said Forgeron, noting that 1 in 12 Vermonters lives with some form of the disorder.

Working Fields aims to serve those populations. More than 90% of the people the agency assists face barriers to employment such as substance abuse disorders, criminal records, housing insecurity or discrimination related to age, gender or sexuality, Forgerson said. It accepts clients, regardless of the extent of their criminal records, and encourages, though doesn’t require, them to share their complete stories with potential employers. 

After intake, Working Fields clients must submit resumes and appear for interviews, much like they would with a typical staffing agency. The agency then matches candidates to open positions. 

Whether temporary or temp-to-hire, the clients remain employees of Working Fields while on assignment. The organization takes on the cost of payroll, as well as insurance, liability and peer support, factoring those expenses into a service fee it charges the employers. It does not subsidize the cost of wages, Forgeron said.

Working Fields also differs from regular staffing agencies by pairing its clients with peer coaches to guide them through life challenges such as child care, housing, health care and recovery. Coaches meet weekly with clients, free of charge.

According to its annual benefit report, Working Fields more than doubled the size of its staff last year, adding three new offices — in St. Albans, Springfield and Manchester, New Hampshire — and two van programs in Chittenden and Windsor counties.

The company now has nine full-time staff members and 18 part-time peer coaches. Many of the Working Fields staff are also in recovery. Some have been incarcerated, unhoused or experienced poverty. 

Wiles makes the case that this coaching service reduces risk for employers. 

“Sure, they can hire people directly, they can hire through other staffing agencies. But they’re not going to get anybody who’s going to be providing them a coach for the first five months of their employment to help them be successful,” he said. “So the risk is minimal.”

Diamond in the rough

Among the people who’ve been helped is Orlando Delgado, who used to be a DJ and had his own music business in Las Vegas. When the 65-year-old stepped off a Greyhound bus in Vermont in February after being released from a prison in Nevada, he had no family, no friends, no job.

Orlando Delgado in St. Albans on Wednesday, November 23, 2022. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Delgado is originally from the Bronx, and while he said he wanted to be close to home, he didn’t want to go back to New York. After someone in prison gave him a Vermont calendar and his prison officer recommended the state, he decided to move here.

He was staying at the Cadillac Motel in St. Albans in March and mentioned he was looking for work when Rhonda Ferraro, who works there, handed him a Working Fields business card. Delgado contacted the company and was quickly placed at Peerless Clothing Warehouse in the city, sorting clothes.

Delgado said he liked that the Working Fields staff members were nonjudgmental and treated him with respect. 

He had a great work ethic, never missed a shift and worked hard, said his manager, Shawn St. Francis. “He’s definitely good to get along with. He really (doesn’t) have any hate toward anybody. He’s my friend. I still talk to him.”

After six months at the warehouse, Delgado now works for a cleaning company by night — another Working Fields placement — and is studying for his GED by day. He has a bank account and is saving money, and eventually wants to buy a car and find a home. 

Orlando Delgado enters his motel room in St. Albans on Wednesday, November 23, 2022. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Delgado, who was convicted on charges of aggravated stalking for posting a video about what he said were corrupt officials, said he would like to pursue a career, perhaps as a paralegal, to better understand the justice system and help those caught up in it.

Ferraro, who has a friend who works at Working Fields, estimated she’s referred half a dozen people to the staffing agency in the past year. She called Delgado “a diamond in the rough.”

His motto: “Don’t worry about failing, worry about a chance you missed when you don’t even try.” 

‘Still really, really hard’

Wiles, the 65-year-old Working Fields founder, said he struggled with substance abuse throughout his corporate business career after developing an alcohol addiction as a teenager. 

When he “just couldn’t do it” anymore, Wiles reached out for help, noting the weight of the challenge despite his personal privilege. 

“I had support systems. I had an employer that let me go to treatments. I had the financial means. I had a family that supported me,” he said. “And with all that it was still really, really hard.”

Wiles, who worked as the chief financial officer at Ben & Jerry’s and then cleaning supply brand Seventh Generation, was subsequently convicted of embezzling $300,000 from the ice cream company. In 2006, he was sentenced to two years in federal prison, which led him to dive back into a 12-step program and counseling.

After prison, Wiles said he had a hard time finding a position commensurate with his experience. But in 2009 he became director of the Turning Point Center of Chittenden County, an organization that provides support services to people in recovery. He helped establish the Vermont Recovery Coach Academy and set up the Vermont Recovery Network, which oversees 12 recovery centers, including the Turning Point Center.

After Turning Point, Wiles became the CFO at Burlington Labs, which provided urine testing to people in recovery. His nearly six-year tenure ended after the company paid the state a $6.7 million settlement in 2016 for the biggest Medicaid fraud in Vermont, in which the company allegedly overbilled the state. The billing errors were unintentional, according to Wiles.

Soon after, Wiles began developing the Working Fields model, establishing the South Burlington-based staffing agency in 2017 as a benefit corporation, under a new state statute.

Lisa Goodrich shakes hands with Mickey Wiles, CEO and founder of Working Fields, at Whitney Blake in Bellows Falls on Tuesday, September 13, 2022. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Making connections

Most clients hear about Working Fields from one of its referral partners, according to marketing director Daryn Forgeron. In 2021, the company received 418 referrals from 224 organizations. Those include recovery centers, probation and parole offices, housing providers and social services organizations, including the Committee on Temporary Shelter (COTS), Feeding Chittenden, SaVida Heath and ANEW Place.

Tammy Santamore, emergency shelter and outreach director at COTS, said Working Fields has been “instrumental in supporting the clients we work with.”  

Working Fields representatives visit the COTS shelters to meet with unhoused clients one-on-one and provide opportunities for employment while removing barriers such as transportation.

Vermont’s unemployment rate was 2.3% with 7,728 people out of jobs in October, according to data from the state Department of Labor. By comparison, the national unemployment rate was 3.7% with 6.1 million unemployed, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Amanda Silder, a business navigator at the Springfield Regional Development Corp., said her organization has partnered with Working Fields to help it connect with employers since it started its Windsor County operations in early 2021. 

“It’s been consistently a really great partnership with the employers that they work with. We’re hearing a lot of positive feedback,” she said.

In addition to being “really fantastic” from a labor and workforce development perspective, Silder credits Working Fields with contributing to a burgeoning renaissance in southern Windsor County.

“I’m really grateful to have this resource because I personally have people in my life who have been affected by substance use disorder … and those who have other barriers,” Silder said. “Just the fact that this resource exists for our community members is just really promising.”

As of Sunday, Working Fields had 171 job positions open, and the company is looking to expand further into New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Wiles hopes the company can be known as “the leader in New England for providing job opportunities and support to a population that today struggles every day to meet those needs.”

Orlando Delgado in St. Albans on Wednesday, November 23, 2022. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

A good fit

Anne, 51, who asked that her real name be withheld because her family doesn’t know she’s in recovery, found out about Working Fields from someone in her recovery group session. 

A single mom who has dealt with depression, divorce, and eating and alcohol disorders, Anne said she had a great job at a growing company, but the hours were long. She was looking for a house while renting a less-than-ideal cabin. Last winter, she removed 17 rodents that were so large and smelly, not even her cats would touch them. 

“It was awful,” she said. 

What started out as a glass of wine at the end of the day soon escalated to a bottle, she recalled. Her teenage son, upset by her drinking, called her out often, adding to her stress.

Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit, and her isolation compounded matters. In spring 2020, she was pulled over for drunk driving. “Unfortunately, that was apparently not enough of an eye-opener because within the next few months, I got a second DUI,” she said. 

To avoid arguing with her son at home, she said she would drive around drinking. Soon she ended up in a ditch, and a good Samaritan called the police. 

Then it happened again. 

This time, a “wonderful policewoman” intervened, she recalled, asking a counselor from Washington County Mental Health to speak with Anne. She spent 10 days in Central Vermont Medical Center’s psychiatric unit. 

“And that was the beginning of my recovery journey,” she said.

It wasn’t a smooth road by any means. She lost her job, her 401(k), her savings and then her unemployment benefits. After a night in jail this summer, she decided: no more. 

“That was my wakeup call,” she said. “Simply put, I never saw myself in jail. I am not that type of person. Jail is not an option. And my addiction didn’t care that I felt that way.”

Within the next few days, a judge ordered her to wear an alcohol monitoring device on her leg and meet weekly with a probation officer.

She needed a job and thought Working Fields could provide a stopgap arrangement to get some cash. A Working Fields employee helped Anne find a job as a retail associate for a small business in Montpelier.

Anne, who’s held the job for four months now, recently had her ankle bracelet removed and is also taking hospitality management courses online at Cornell.

“Working Fields is tied in with getting me into a position where I am not only gainfully employed,” she said, “but I am employed in something that I’m good at, at a place where I am still enjoying my work enough that I will still pursue what I want to on the outside.”

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