As seen in Good Work News, Issue 109, June 2012 - click here for the full issue
By Cristina Doyle
I started my student placement at The Working Centre in January of this year. During my short time here working on the Job Café project, I have been able to truly understand the concept of community development, which cannot be fully explained in a classroom setting. I have also been able to better identify the significant barriers that many face in looking for employment, as well as witness the effects of underfunded and unjust social assistance programs.
Job Café is a project that connects individuals who do not fit in the mainstream labour market with odd jobs and casual work in order to earn extra income. Job Café recognizes that there are barriers that many are facing when seeking employment, and has created an environment where people can gain access to the labour market in ways where their skills and experience can be respected and utilized.
This widespread need for this alternative approach to labour was highlighted for me when I reached out to community members and groups of people, often seeking odd jobs that needed completing. However, it was much more frequent for people to approach me looking for work, displaying this significant need in the community. This is a time when job cuts are common, and openings are scarce.
Workers with Job Café come from varied backgrounds, and are facing a wide range of obstacles. Some have recently lost their stable jobs, and are struggling to find work. Others have been living in poverty for some time, and may be struggling with maintaining stability in many areas, including employment. An example is one individual who has faced instability throughout his life, starting with his first foster home at a very young age. As a teenager, he was left to support himself, and looked for whatever work could support his immediate needs. It was often difficult for him to think in the long-term, and a lack of recognized formal education proved to be a significant barrier to permanent full-time employment. This individual has only been in Kitchener for a number of months, and hopes to move on soon to be closer to family. Job Cafe allows him to pick up work, and extra cash, when needed. He has also shared that he enjoys the people he gets to meet through the work, and the connections he makes.
Another individual had a stable labour job for years, but was let go several years ago - along with all other employees - when the business was closed. He was unable to find another job, and eventually found himself on the streets. With help from many members of The Working Centre, he was able to secure housing, and is slowly stabilizing in his alcohol use. With Job Café, he is grateful to use his skills to successfully complete jobs he feels comfortable with. He appreciates having the option to work only when he feels healthy enough, and gets a sense of accomplishment for the good work done. Another individual, with a university degree, worked in business for a number of years before being laid off. At 55 years old, and with English as a second language, he continues to actively look for work, and uses Job Café as a stepping stone during this transient time in his life. Other workers struggle with issues of mental health and addiction, and while often unable to maintain steady employment, have the ability and the desire to work.
Many Job Café workers are social assistance recipients looking to supplement their meager earnings, which has opened my eyes to the unjust and punitive nature of these programs in Ontario. Current Ontario Works (OW) and Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) rates force recipients to live below the poverty line. The recently released provincial budget has announced that there will be a freeze of these rates which, when considering increases in the cost of living, will actually represent cuts to people’s earnings. Recipients are required to report their monthly earnings, and are deducted 50% of this from their monthly cheque. For example, an individual who works at $11 an hour for 20 hours over the period of one month would be assumed to receive $220. However, this individual would be required to report these earnings Ontario Works, and give back 50%, or $110, of this money. Looked at in a different way, this could be described as working for $5.50 an hour, well below minimum wage. This punitive situation does not provide incentive for recipients to seek out part time labour.
Participants of Job Café are skilled in a number of areas. Pick-ups and deliveries for Worth a Second Look couldn’t be accomplished without these individuals. Recently, Job Café workers were also heavily involved in renovations for The Working Centre’s new clothing store on Market Lane, as well as the new Recycle Cycle location. These individuals took pride in their work, and, as with all Working Centre projects, felt as they were an important piece of its development. We would often receive a number of people offering to help, or simply asking about how the work was going. Participants in Job Café truly want to work, and often volunteer in various Working Centre projects in between jobs. Workers are readily available and participate in a number of different tasks for community members - including gardening, moving, cleaning and painting. It is clear that all work can create a sense of accomplishment, especially when enhanced with respect and acknowledgment.
Throughout my time here, I have seen that the impact of a program like Job Café has a reach beyond the individual level. The program has allowed for community development that benefits a range of people and groups. Relationships and connections are created as workers and employers alike become more involved in their community, and engage with individuals outside their regular social networks. It is common for relationships that started with Job Café to continue over a period of time. I spoke to a worker who helped a woman with her snow shoveling one winter. A relationship was developed, and this worker would often be called to complete small jobs whenever needed. Soon, this became a trusted friendship, which continued until the woman passed away recently. The Job Café participant still remembers this with fondness, and describes feeling both a sense of belonging and accomplishment.
Job Café is a connecting service that not only gives people the opportunity to find employment and earn extra income, but also to participate meaningfully in their own community. Employers also become more positively engaged in their community, and expand their horizons by meeting new individuals, all while receiving a valuable service. Job Café is a project in which friendships are developed, good work is accomplished and our community is strengthened.
Cristina Doyle is in the Master of Social Work program at Wilfrid Laurier University. Her 4-day/week placement this winter has been to assist in the development of the Job Café project.