The case files say it all. One woman who was making $13 an hour received a 20-cent hourly raise from her employer. Her new income total pushed her above the eligibility income for certain federal benefits. The woman lost her SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) federal help. She has six children.
Another individual had a job where her pay was raised to $17 an hour. But that $80 more per month meant she lost her $700-a-month housing waiver and child care waiver. She is a single mom with two kids.
Benefit cliffs occur when someone earns new or increased income that disqualifies that individual from some or all of the public benefit, creating a net loss of income. Dealing with that concern is just one part of the United Way of Greater Cleveland’s Social Determinants of Work (SDoW) Initiative, helping workers face employment barriers.
“State and federal governments create benefit cliffs and we can’t change that, although it is a long-term goal,” says Renee Timberlake, director of economic mobility for the United Way. “Our approach includes mitigating cliffs so when someone hits one, a bridge can be built for them to get across. Also, we provide employers with alternative practices or policies to better support their employees when change hits them.”
United Way of Greater Cleveland and Towards Employment (a workforce development provider in Cleveland) have identified additional SDoW from previously created ones: job flexibility, health care, childcare, transportation, sustained education, home and community health, broadband access and access to justice.
United Way also has a strong commitment to “bring to light and undo systemic, historic inequities associated with SDoW.” Based on recent local discussions, Timberlake says many people are not aware of SDoW but are open to solutions.
“Most people who manage and run companies have never experienced being on public assistance or don’t have a social circle of people who have,” Timberlake explains. “So, there is a real class difference between the employees who experience it and managers who haven’t.”
Lessening or eliminating SDoW barriers is a huge, obvious plus for affected employees. But Timberlake says employers also benefit greatly if changes are made. Giving employees a small raise is not always the answer, she says. But if both knocking down hurdles to public benefits and offering a decent wage is possible, then hiring and keeping employees is easier. Employee retention saves a business time, money and effort.
Employers’ new practices don’t have to be extremely complicated to be effective and helpful. Timberlake suggests employers discuss with their employees whether or not a bonus would be more impactful than a raise. That way it may be possible for employees to keep their public benefits while also receiving a lump sum toward a car, appliance or other need. A raise would also most likely cost the employer more money in the long run, according to Timberlake. Supplying childcare vouchers is another opportunity that would be a tremendous help, she says.
This summer, United Way presented educational programs and information gathering activities to employers, nonprofit organizations, business organizations, local government officials and other community stakeholders. The goal was to introduce the SDoW Initiative and to gain important feedback. A public program (day and place to be determined) in the fall is scheduled to report those results. Information will include what organizations are already doing and identify gaps.
“It’s a particularly good time in history to have these conversations,” says Timberlake. “Employers are more willing than ever to do things differently.”