United Way and partners to tackle ‘social determinants of work’


Reneé Timberlake

Training programs focused on specific industries are good at helping people advance in their careers. Now, we know that they can address racial disparities in employment too, writes Deondre’ Jones of MDRC.

Article by Lydia Coutré
Crain's Cleveland Business
Published July 8, 2022

Read the the full article at Crain's Cleveland


In collaboration with community partners, United Way of Greater Cleveland is working to better understand and address factors that affect a person's ability to prepare for and enter the workforce, accept a job and grow in their role.

United Way and Towards Employment, a workforce development nonprofit, have identified eight "social determinants of work:" five that have been previously defined (job flexibility, transportation, childcare, health care and sustained education), along with three they're adding (home and community health, broadband access and access to justice).

"The social determinants of work help us understand that people are complex, and that the reasons that they make their decisions are not simply a lack of desire to work," said Renée Timberlake, director of economic mobility for United Way of Greater Cleveland. "They're often really influenced by a whole set of barriers and challenges and decision points that they have to make that a lot of people who are running companies or managing people have never really had to face, because they've had a certain level of financial stability."

The Social Determinants of Work (SDoW) Initiative begins with a summit on Thursday, July 14, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., covering "benefit cliffs," their impacts and tools to navigate them. These cliffs occur when individuals who receive public benefits receive an increase in earnings that disqualify them from at least one public benefit, resulting in a net income loss. Later this month, Team NEO will co-host employer engagement opportunities for the business community to better understand how to support workers and remove barriers to work.

United Way will also host community action plan working sessions and a culminating forum featuring Angela Jackson, managing partner at the venture philanthropy organization New Profit, who coined the term social determinants of work and defined the initial five barriers. Over the next several months, United Way and Towards Employment are writing a report on SDoW in the area that will be released at the forum in October, along with a community action plan that will be created through the working sessions.

The concept of social determinants of work captures the various elements that may create an opportunity gap, from practical barriers to structural challenges like systemic racism that run through each of them, said Jill Rizika, president and CEO of Towards Employment. The challenge for the community is to better understand those barriers and collectively do a better job of addressing them, she said, pointing to the community leadership, conversations, and investments around addressing the social determinants of health. Workforce could leverage a similar approach to think more holistically and create alignment among workers, their supports, employers and job opportunities, she said.

At the start of this year, 93.6% of Northeast Ohio businesses said the pool of qualified applicants for open positions was not sufficient for their needs, according to a mid-December 2021 to January 2022 survey conducted by the Fund for our Economic Future as part of its Where Are the Workers research initiative.

The unemployment rate for the Cleveland area is 5.5%, according to preliminary figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics for May 2022, which puts it at the highest rate among large metro areas with populations greater than 1 million.

With a disconnect between employers hiring and people looking for jobs, this is "the perfect time" to discuss barriers to work and to figure out why people aren't coming into the open jobs, Timberlake said.

Eli Stacy, regional outreach manager for the central and northern Ohio regions at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, is on the advisory committee for the SDoW initiative, along with representatives from area nonprofits, including The Center for Community Solutions, the Northeast Ohio Workforce Coalition, Towards Employment, The Centers, Esperanza, the Literacy Cooperative and Sisters of Charity.

"Cleveland, unlike most metros had high unemployment, regardless of job access rate, which is the share of jobs in a region that can be reached within a typical commute distance, or time," Stacy said, citing "Missed Connections in Cleveland," a report published by a colleague. "That highlights that there are deeper problems beyond just the physical job location accessibility, that Clevelanders are facing. So part of the conversation is really digging into what are the drivers of that?"

Beyond impeding job access, SDoW also can hinder an individual's ability to obtain the skills needed to take advantage of jobs and, among a certain population, be a barrier to career advancement.

In its efforts, the SDoW Initiative is emphasizing the effect of benefit cliffs and raising awareness about the challenges they create for those receiving public benefits.

These cliffs face people who are on the path from poverty to economic self sufficiency and prosperity, said Emily Campbell, chief operating officer at the Center for Community Solutions. The four programs most often examined when thinking about benefits cliffs are: child care, housing assistance, Medicaid and SNAP.

"It's impacting people who are making decisions about whether to work more hours or take a raise or get a better job," she said. "There are places on that path, as you move up in income, where in the short term, it does not make economic sense for your family, because you're gonna lose a benefit that's worth hundreds of dollars a month for a very small raise or increase, and so it causes workers to get stuck."

Plus, it "really frustrates employers," if people turn down opportunities for advancement, Campbell said, which is why it's important to find tools to help employees and employers navigate the cliffs.

"The solutions to the social determinants of work are things that don't just help people who are living in poverty; they can help everyone," Campbell said. "I think by focusing on those people that are facing benefit cliffs, or those people that are living in poverty, you get the right solutions that can work for the broadest group of people."

Further education and awareness of social determinants of work could present opportunities to increase job quality, said Debbi Perkul, who was executive director of workforce partnerships at MAGNET until transitioning out of her role at the end of June.

A strategy under the Workforce Connect Manufacturing sector partnership was creating on-ramps for populations underrepresented in manufacturing, including women, Black people and other people of color, women and young adults between 18 and 24 years of age. ACCESS to Manufacturing Careers, a four-week work-readiness program, was created to help address this. Towards Employment serves as the training provider.

Through the ACCESS program, about 30 participating employers and some other manufacturing companies learned about benefit cliffs. In a presentation, Campbell taught them about how the issue could be impacting their employees and what possible solutions could be implemented. It was eye-opening to many, said Perkul, who notes that outside of the worlds of government and nonprofit or social service organizations, there's not a broad understanding of how public benefits work.

"I'm just really, really happy that United Way is hosting these employer sessions, because I think it makes a big difference," Perkul said. Employers "want to have good working conditions for their employees; they want to have good culture, because it makes people stick around and they have good retention. And so awareness is really the first step to that."

To become an ACCESS employer, companies must offer professional development opportunities and career pathways, which meant they were embracing sustained education options for their employees which addresses one of those SDoWs, she said. Getting employees access to benefits like health care more quickly after they're hired is another potential tool.

There are a number of other practical solutions that could help to support workers. Flexing a start time to accommodate a bus schedule that doesn't fit with the beginning of a shift may be a simple one, Timberlake said, while childcare subsidies could be more difficult for others.

She hopes the upcoming sessions offer a space for employers to share current practices and come up with new ideas together.

Rizika said she hopes to see more employers offer learn and earn positions and other opportunities to help close the gap.

"Is there really a shortage or are we just not able to connect people to jobs?" Rizika said. "And then is that actual talent? You know, is it actual skills? Is it experience? Is it education? Or is it these social determinants of work? Have the social determinants of work led to the fact that people haven't had the opportunity to get those skills and experience that employers want now? OK, if that's the case, the solution isn't sitting back and waiting until someone figures out how to get that skill. It's not just fixing the workers, but the work."