Entrepreneurial Social Action Print
Written by Michael Fones   
Thursday, 26 July 2007 16:47
I am preparing a talk for a father/son retreat this weekend and was looking for a good story to tell about a man living out his royal office in the workworld. Fr. Paul Wicker, the priest I live with when I'm in Colorado Springs (as I am now) turned me on to a local story of a fellow named Steve Bigari - a friend Fr. Paul calls a "street saint." You can read the full story by clicking here, but here are a few excerpts with a few comments from me...

"Low-wage workers in the United States are often one crisis away from extreme poverty. Steve Bigari recruits employers to take a lead role in addressing the problems that make workers vulnerable, breaking the cycle of persistent poverty by helping workers achieve personal stability and develop the skills they need to get a foothold on the ladder to the middle class."

This has been an ongoing problem for some time. I remember the shock I had when, as a novice over 23 years ago, I stayed overnight on a regular basis in a homeless shelter run by a Catholic organization in Oakland, CA. What was so surprising? The fact that I had to wake a number of the men and women who stayed there anywhere between 4 and 5:30 a.m. so they could get ready for work! They didn't make enough money, or didn't have the skill set necessary to manage what they earned, to provide housing for themselves.

Today, "a quarter of American workers—27 million people—earn less than $8.70 per hour, much too little to support a family. Only 18 percent of the working poor get health insurance through their job. Only 25 percent own a computer. Most pay over half of their income to live in substandard housing, and many lack the reliable transportation they need to get to work each day and to attend education and training programs.

All of these factors make it more difficult for these millions of workers to develop essential job skills. Without adequate transportation, affordable housing, child care, health care, access to technology, and the time and money for education and training, low-wage workers cannot achieve the stability they need to succeed in their current jobs and advance to better ones.

They are stuck in a vicious cycle: The problems that cause them to miss work make them poor candidates for advancement; employers are not motivated to help workers solve these problems because they can’t count on them to stay on the job. As a result, low-wage workers drift from one unskilled job to another, unable to sustain employment and move from poverty to the middle class."

Mr. Bigari went to work at a McDonald's franchise as a vice president and operations manager for a friend of his. When the friend died, Mr. Bigari bought the franchise and expanded it to twelve in twelve years, often creating innovative ways to increase the productivity of each store. During the 19 years he was involved in those franchises, he witnessed the effects of shifts missed due to car problems or a sick child. Like many employers in the service industry, he saw productivity decline due to the rapid turnover of workers.

Unlike most employers, however, he chose to find a way to help his employees gain stability, rather than believe they weren't worth the effort because of the possibility of their leaving the job. He loaned over $500,000 to solve a wide variety of problems that threatened the security of employees and the success of his business. During that time, he learned some things about what does and doesn't work when it comes to helping people.

He is proving that helping workers find financial stability is in the employer's best interest. How does increase the stability of his workers? He founded America's Family (www.amfol.com) to partner employers, workers, and social service providers to meet employees’ essential needs of health care, transportation, child care, housing, and education. His program offers a coordinated continuum of services, ensuring that low-income workers have the resources they need to stay on the job and succeed at work.

"America’s Family has created an innovative plan to provide health care to low-wage workers. Steve persuaded Community Health Centers, a provider of high-cost emergency care, to create a Healthy Workforce program for workers with an emphasis on prevention and health education. To pay for the program, he instituted a payroll deduction/employer match system. In this way, employees gained access to affordable health care, while Community Health Centers gained a new source of revenue. Furthermore, because the Community Health Center program emphasizes the prevention of illness and maintenance of wellness, it dramatically lowers workers’ dependence on costly emergency services.

Through their work with Steve and his organization, hundreds of workers obtain computers, affordable childcare and housing, reliable transportation, and online access to education. Clients of America’s Family can purchase low-cost computers through a payroll deduction program; they receive their computers when they pay 50 percent of the cost, and get free Internet service as a bonus.

America’s Family recently partnered with citizen groups and a government housing provider to create a 100-unit hotel providing its members with low-cost transitional housing. America’s Family also works with car dealers and banks to help employees establish credit and qualify for loans, and trains employees to manage these loans through an online course on personal finance.

Today, 100 percent of the 1,200 clients of America’s Family have access to affordable housing, child care, car transportation and email. Many have progressed from subsidized to private health insurance.

Proven benefits to employers’ bottom line positions America’s Family to change the way the service industry treats low-wage workers. Steve piloted the program in four McDonald’s franchises, carefully tracking profits and measures of employee performance. When he began his study, his franchises were plagued with the high rates of turnover and absenteeism that pervade the service industry. After a year under the America’s Family program, profits improved by $300,000. Turnover rates were 63 percent lower after one year and an additional 29 percent lower after two years."

All of this work flows from Steve's life of faith, and is an expression of that faith. He recognized he was making money while his employees were often struggling to make ends meet. They'd go to work, do everything right, and return home each night to poverty. Through his experiences, creativity, and compassion, he is now in a position to change the way service workers are treated.

He is not only doing well, he is doing good!

In fact, by harnessing the power of private enterprise, non-profit organizations, and government initiatives, Steve and America's Family have as their goal to eliminate poverty for working Americans by 2025. This is a huge vision for a man who, among the many awards hanging on his office wall, has this prayer framed:

"Slow me down, Lord! Ease the pounding of my heart by the quieting of my mind. Steady my hurried pace with a vision of the eternal reach of time.

Give me, amidst the confusion of my day, the calmness of the everlasting hills..."

It is amazing what one person can begin, if they begin in God.