As New Directions Shelter Program Manager at Hawthorn Hill, Kelsie Pinegar hears many stories about challenges central Iowans face as they strive to meet their basic needs and care for families. Many of the shelter’s clients are working and still unable to enough to cover a basic household budget, with nearly half of all jobs in Iowa paying under $15 an hour. A lower wage job not only affects the well-being of their families, but also creates additional barriers for them to be present and engaged at work, leading to high turnover. 

“A lot of families I work with say, ‘I want a job that I like. I want a job that pays enough that I don’t have to be on food stamps or government assistance,’” Kelsie says, “but that’s not always available.”

While each story is unique, Kelsie hears common systemic barriers many families must navigate to be at work. Thinking about innovative solutions to address any of these barriers could create opportunities for employers to improve hiring practices and employee retention to ultimately increase business success.

Barrier 1: Access to affordable, quality child-care

Many lower wage workers must apply for child-care assistance from the Dept. of Human Services to cover the cost of childcare, which can take about a month to be approved. Then the parent must find a child-care center that accepts the credits and is located where the parent can get to each day and get to work on time, which is especially challenging without a car. A parent who works outside of traditional child-care center hours also may struggle to find options. Until all these pieces come together, a parent may have to wait to seek employment or struggle to find childcare for each shift.

This year has especially been challenging for working parents without paid time off when child-care centers or schools have closed. Many parents have had to make the difficult choice of leaving young children home alone or quitting their jobs, leading them deeper into poverty.

SOLUTIONS: The Women’s Fund of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation’s toolkit identifies creative ways of supporting staff who need child care options. This guide from Pacific Community Ventures gives you five steps for offering a paid leave program.

Barrier 2: Reliable transportation

Transportation is a common area of concern for many individuals living in poverty in central Iowa. While the bus system meets a lot of individuals’ needs, many routes do not run as frequently, especially at night, and many individuals must juggle several routes to get to a child-care center and to work.

Increasingly, Kelsie’s families are using Uber or Lyft, but the costs for these services quickly add up. Many individuals, especially individuals of color, have been left out of the traditional banking system and may not have a credit card or debit card to use these services. Meanwhile, the cost of owning a car and maintaining registration, insurance, and maintenance is out of reach for a lot of lower-wage earners.

Without affordable housing options near places of work, many families must navigate these challenges to get to their shift each day.

SOLUTION: Offering creative benefits, like transportation vouchers, can meet employees’ unique need and ensure they show up to work ready to engage in their tasks. This article by the Society of Human Resource Management helps you develop a benefits plan that meets your employees’ and your needs.

Barrier 3: Having consistent hours

Kelsie increasing hears of clients who get jobs that promise full-time hours, but after a couple of weeks, those hours are cut to part time. Unprepared for the sudden loss of income, lower-wage workers must scramble to find another job option.

SOLUTION: This Forbes article discusses why a consistent schedule benefits your business and how to implement a more effective schedule. This article on Harvard Business Review shares how implementing more-stable scheduling increased Gap’s store sales by 7% and productivity by 5%.

Barrier 4: Being considered based on a resume

Because of the challenges already listed, many lower-wage workers may have gaps in their resumes as they are forced to stay home to care for kids or switch jobs to get more work hours. Hiring managers may view these as red flags on a resume and automatically disqualify someone in online application systems, preventing them from attaining better job opportunities.

“It’s hard to maintain employment when don’t have your most basic needs met,” says Kelsie. “When you are stressed out and in a survival mindset, you can’t think beyond the present moment. Families don’t have the resources to anticipate and deal with unexpected crisis.”

SOLUTION: Central Iowa Works and its job developer partners emphasize the importance of going beyond just reviewing a resume to providing opportunities during the application process for candidates to talk about their backgrounds and to demonstrate how they are prepared for the job.

Taking action for equity

Many of these challenges have grown worse as the pandemic has wiped out lower-wage jobs or forced many lower-wage workers to still report to work despite fears of getting sick and having to leave children at home. Individuals of color and, particularly, single mothers, are being impacted most by this situation, which also impacts diversity in the workplace. 

Central Iowa Works’ Thriving Workforce initiative promotes six strategies that can help address some of these barriers and has been shown to improve employee engagement. 

View job strategy guides

TAGS: Thriving Workforce

Sarah Welch

About The Author: Sarah Welch

Sarah Welch is the former Strategic Communications Officer at United Way of Central Iowa.