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.
The New Idea
As an employer himself, Steve Bigari saw how common problems frequently made it difficult for low-wage workers to do their jobs. A sick child or a car malfunction, which would barely disturb high-wage workers with the resources to obtain child care and alternative transportation, can be a huge setback for low-income families. Since employers are often the first to know when these problems arise, they have a unique opportunity to help.
Through his organization America’s Family Inc., Steve partners with employers to create an efficient, cost-effective system of support services for hourly-wage workers, making it easier for these workers to sustain employment and advance in the workplace. Working against common perceptions of the business community, he demonstrates that employers can and will mobilize resources to help their workers sustain employment, qualify for better jobs and break the cycle of poverty. As workers gain financial stability, they bring benefits of increased loyalty and productivity to their employers, and pave the way for Steve’s model to spread to businesses in all sectors and locations.
In the United States, 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.
Governmental programs provide poor families a haphazard array of services, providing only short-term or partial solutions. Nonprofit organizations try to fill in the gaps, but with only marginal success. Employers of low-income workers stand on the sidelines, believing that it is not in their best interests to get involved.
But these employers are wrong: Helping workers find financial stability is most definitely in their best interests. Today, many employers find themselves frustrated by high rates of employee turnover. They constantly put out fires, juggling work schedules and training new hires rather than developing a stable workforce with ever-strengthening skills to drive profits up and keep training costs down. When they fail to help their workers prevent financial crisis, employers miss out on a golden opportunity to build profit for their business.
Steve directly challenges the accepted practices of service-industry employers, who typically respond to high turnover and low productivity by investing as little as possible in minimum-wage workers. Through America’s Family, he partners 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.
America’s Family has already expanded to Dallas and is now launching programs in Denver. McDonald’s USA has asked the organization to implement its methods in stores nationally. To prove the application of his model in a broad range of industries, Steve is piloting new projects among janitorial services, car dealerships, and dozens of other businesses.
Steve grew up in Milwaukee in a liberal Catholic family. His father was a salesman who believed strongly in government’s responsibility to provide security and social welfare to its citizens. His mother suffered from chronic illness, and her suffering convinced Steve early on of the importance of good health care. He graduated from West Point, but left the military to seek specialized medical care for a sick daughter. After a few years, he signed on as vice president and operations manager of a McDonald’s franchise owned by a friend, seeking an entrepreneurial challenge. When his friend died, Steve took over the restaurant and expanded his franchise to 12 more restaurants in 12 years. Today, he focuses on America’s Family full-time.
Steve co-founded the Ronald McDonald House in Colorado Springs. He is the only two-time recipient of McDonald’s Ronald Award, an honor rewarding lifetime achievement in selfless community service.