Putting Northeast Ohio workers on the map: The road to employment begins with worker mobility

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Three things you can do to advance equity and inclusion after reading this article

The Commission on Economic Inclusion has launched a year-long storytelling project called Racial Equity Sketches, in which they demonstrate how racial equity is interconnected with issues affecting both the business community and our larger community.

These fictional stories are meant to imagine what making an "equitable decision" could look like. Through them, they hope to reveal that equity is not always a major comprehensive strategy, but rather the compilation of many small, informed, and thoughtful decisions.

Read "The Relocation" below:

It was a sunny morning in Cleveland. Through a crack in the curtains, a ray of light made its way through the bedroom window of a historic suburban home. Inside, Daniel had been awake for nearly an hour, trying to contain his excitement and contemplate what the next few hours would bring.

Today was the day. For months, Daniel had been in negotiations with real estate developers and city leaders to finalize the plan for what was sure to be one of the biggest wins for his company in years: a relocation.

When Daniel founded his company, Illustra Inc., nearly 20 years ago, it was only him and a couple college friends. Picking a “headquarters” wasn’t difficult?—?all three lived near downtown at the time, and Daniel was able to find office space that met their modest needs. Back then, Daniel could have never expected the predicament he found himself in now.

What was once a small enterprise burgeoned over the years into a successful and profitable professional services firm with more than 200 employees. They went from a one-room suite to renting the entire office building. But this year, several departments within the organization were ready to expand. And that meant Illustra Inc., would need a new home.

Luckily, Daniel found the perfect place. It was closer to where his family lived now, which meant he would have time in the mornings with his 3-year-old daughter before leaving for work. His executive team agreed it was the ideal business decision. Costs would go down, their employees would pay less for parking, the building was beautiful—and not to mention, the deal came with a fairly attractive tax incentive. Unlike most deliberations Illustra’s C-suite experienced in the past, the relocation decision reached an effortless consensus.

Nothing about this day could possibly go wrong, and Daniel’s fingers were itching to finally sign the official papers. When he walked into the office that morning, the excitement on his face was apparent.

“Looks like somebody just got a new client today!”

The chirpy voice came from the front desk where Irene, always the first person at work, was sitting. Irene was Illustra’s fourth hire and stayed with the company through the rocky times. Though he didn’t say it aloud enough, Daniel was deeply grateful for Irene. Her lively greetings and loving nature brightened everyone’s day and set the foundation for Illustra’s friendly workplace environment.

“Even better than that, Irene!” Daniel responded. “Very soon, you won’t have to be working in this dark, gray room anymore!”

“Are we finally painting?” Irene laughed.

“No, we’re moving! Not too far at all and the new offices are so much nicer. The lobby is all glass—on a day like this, oh Irene, you will absolutely love it!”

“That’s, uh, wonderful news!” Irene exclaimed.

Daniel could notice a hint of hesitation in her voice. A few moments later, she asked, “So, is this final?”

“Not yet, the agreement will be finalized this afternoon. But I’m not expecting any roadblocks. It’s been in the works for a while. Is something wrong, Irene?”

“Well, actually Mr. Daniel …,” Irene’s face became clouded with a look of concern. Daniel couldn’t remember ever seeing Irene like this before.

“The problem is, well, you see, right now our office is right on the Red Line. I’ll have to agree with you, it isn’t the prettiest office, but my commute is only 30 minutes each way. I’m not even sure if there’s a bus that’ll get me to …”

Daniel interrupted. “Wait a second. I didn’t realize you didn’t drive to work. Do you have a car?”

Irene looked down and fidgeted with the beads of her bracelet. “My son would usually drive me around, but he recently moved to Chicago, so …”

Daniel was taken aback. He never considered that, for some of his employees, the new location wasn’t just a matter of a few added minutes of drive time. His executive team was so certain this decision was purely good news, they hadn’t thought to get feedback from employees at all levels. The possibility of Irene, especially, being hurt by the potential move devastated Daniel. He was moved by the way she positively affected the lives of everyone at Illustra. Even as the CEO, Daniel sometimes felt like he didn’t have that kind of daily impact.

“I’m really sorry, Irene, I had no idea …”

“It’s okay, Mr. Daniel,” Irene quickly comforted him. “I know you will do what is best for your company.” She smiled, with the same sense of calm and ease that everyone loved about her.

Unable to say much else, Daniel shuffled in the direction of his office. The confidence and conviction that enveloped him this morning seemed to be fraying at the edges. How could he have moved forward so quickly on a deal without having considered the full extent of consequences for his employees?

Suddenly, he remembered the words of his father the day he established his new company. “Business isn’t about profit, son. It’s about creating opportunities for people that weren’t there before. Create opportunities for other people first and that will create opportunities for you.”

He thought of Irene and everyone else that depended on Illustra for their livelihood. Had he taken all their perspectives into account in this decision? In every decision?

Before walking into his office, Daniel pulled out his cell phone and made a call. After two rings, the man on the other line picked up.

Daniel could feel his heart beating fast, but his voice was firm, confident.

“Hey Mark, it’s me, Daniel. I know we’ve got that meeting at 2 p.m. today to finalize the deal, but unfortunately we’ll have to cancel. Illustra has got a little bit more research to do. Hope you understand.”

To read the afterword for "The Relocation" and more information and recommended reading suggestions, please clickhere.

If she could afford a car, Antaneshia Fletcher could drive to her job at Bloom Artisan Bakery & Café in less than 20 minutes. Instead, she rises at 4:30 am every day so she can spend two hours taking the two bus routes necessary to travel from her home in Euclid to the store near the Cleveland State University campus by 6:30 am.

The friendly though soft-spoken 25-year-old could take an Uber, but she estimates that would cost about $22 per day. Occasionally, she catches a ride, but mostly she listens to music or reads on her phone to wile away her four-hour journey to and from downtown (and that’s assuming everything is on time).

<span class="content-image-text">Antaneshia Fletcher</span>Antaneshia Fletcher“Sometimes I have to call my boss and tell her I’ll be late because a bus broke down or is running late,” says Fletcher. “But she’s cool with it, because she knows where I live.”

Fletcher isn't alone: Worker mobility or transportation to available employment stands as a barrier for many people who live in urban areas or are spread throughout Northeast Ohio.

“The effects of suburban sprawl really go back several decades,” says Brett Barkley, a data scientist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. “It accelerated in the 60s and 70s with the construction of the Interstate Highway System, suburbanization and white flight, during which residents who could afford to move to the suburbs did. A lot of businesses and jobs relocated to the suburbs to follow the workforce.”

Sprawl’s shadow is, of course, shaped by an undercurrent of racial disparity. Current demographic statistics indicate that 25.5 percent of Cleveland’s black residents don’t own a car, compared to 6.8 percent of white residents. That percentage increases in high-poverty areas.

For example, in the Central neighborhood, which is 90 percent black, an estimated 56 percent of its residents doesn’t possess a vehicle.

To highlight the current job access challenges, Barkley cites the fact that while Solon is home to the largest concentration of low-skilled jobs in Cuyahoga County, it is very difficult to reach by public transit.

<span class="content-image-text">Brett Barkley</span>Brett Barkley“Our research from a few years ago indicates that only about 28 percent of Cuyahoga County workers can commute by transit to Solon in under 90 minutes, while commuting by car would take only 20 to 25 minutes,” he says. “In fact, only 12 percent of all Northeast Ohio workers, which includes the entire Cleveland and Akron Metropolitan Statistical Area, can commute there by transit.”

From the employer's perspective, the Cleveland Federal Reserve’s report indicates that half of Northeast Ohio’s top 10 employment centers have access to just 15 percent or less of the regional workforce.

At the heart of this transportation challenge is a paradox that can be articulated in several ways but basically boils down to this: No car, no job. No job, no car. Academic researchers and public policy makers have grappled with the issue for decades.

One company that is trying to diminish the transportation burden is Fletcher’s employer, Towards Employment, a nonprofit workforce development agency that connects people to careers. Towards Employment also owns Bloom Bakery, which hires individuals who face barriers to steady employment with the goal of providing fundamental training in culinary arts.

"Ant," as Fletcher is known to friends and regulars, is a member of the retail team responsible for taking all catering orders. She quickly built a reputation for being a dependable employee with a can-do attitude.

According to sales manager Kristina Clark, Towards Employment supports employees like Ant by offering free weekly bus passes as part of its retention efforts—in light of the fact that the majority of Bloom Bakery employees ride the bus for more than two hours each way to get to work.

Employees can also apply for transportation loan programs, which includes paying off fines to get a driver’s license back or making a down payment on a car. Then, Towards Employment gives employees gas cards to help defray their transportation costs.

“In the same way we always work to make sure our customers get first-rate food, we want to ensure that our employees get a second chance,” Clark says. “So we try to help them navigate life’s obstacles and build their careers any way we can.”

On a more macro level for Northeast Ohio, other effective solutions are starting to emerge, starting with a new initiative from The Fund for Our Economic Future in June. The Paradox Prize is a public competition that will fund ideas to bridge the gap between individual car ownership and a 64-passenger bus ride.

“We’re aiming to address the transportation paradox of ‘no car, no job; no job no car,’” explains Bethia Burke, vice president for the Fund. “We know that lack of transportation access disproportionately cuts off residents in minority communities from jobs. This is the result of longstanding policies and practices like redlining that have driven development in a segregated way. Job growth has occurred in places that are increasingly farther away from a concentration of the population.”

The Paradox Prize effort is also taking into account the widening range of transportation options for workers—who no longer choose just between owning a car or riding the bus but instead may consider multiple alternatives such as car pooling, on-demand car services (e.g., TransLoc or Lyft structured in partnership with transit agencies and private employers), ride-sharing, or van pooling services. Today, the availability of data and modeling capabilities enables municipalities to explore various ways to improve worker mobility and bridge that transportation gap.

To further explore those solutions, The Fund has partnered with the National Fund for Workforce Solutions—which contributed a $600,000 grant to the project—along with Greater Cleveland Partnership, DriveOhio, and The Lozick Family Foundation to launch an up to $1 million, multi-year Transportation Paradox Prize.

During the next three years, through a series of rolling deadlines, the Paradox Prize will provide funding to support up to 15 innovative pilot projects that will “help Northeast Ohioans stranded economically by geography connect to tens of thousands of open positions.”

According to Burke, the Fund will begin accepting submissions for The Paradox Prize the first week of June, and anyone with a good idea is eligible to apply.

One neighborhood-based solution provider that plans to submit a proposal is EmpowerBus of Columbus. While the organization’s mission is to furnish workforce, education and healthcare transportation, its current focus is providing workforce transportation. The organization works closely with businesses in Central Ohio, such as Worthington Industries or Abercrombie & Fitch, to offer transportation for employees with limited options. EmpowerBus plans to expand into several peer cities including Cleveland, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Louisville.

Aslyne Rodriguez, co-founder and CEO of EmpowerBus, says discussing futuristic solutions such as Jetson-style flying cars is wonderful, but cities need immediate solutions to serve residents who need transportation.

“We’ve got to be forward-thinking and look at those advancements in technology, but we also have to say right now, today, what is happening and how are people getting to work,” she states. “If those methods don’t serve all, then that just continues to exacerbate the situation between those who have and those who don’t.”

Christopher Johnston
Christopher Johnston

About the Author: Christopher Johnston

Christopher Johnston has published more than 3,000 articles in publications such as American Theatre, Christian Science Monitor, Credit.com, History Magazine, The Plain Dealer, Progressive Architecture, Scientific American and Time.com. He was a stringer for The New York Times for eight years. He served as a contributing editor for Inside Business for more than six years, and he was a contributing editor for Cleveland Enterprise for more than ten years. He teaches playwriting and creative nonfiction workshops at Cleveland State University. He wrote The Way I Saw It, the memoirs of Marc Wyse, co-founder of Wyse Advertising. His book, Shattering Silences: New Approaches to Healing Survivors of Rape and Bringing Their Assailants to Justice (Skyhorse) will be published in February 2018.