Building ladders into upwardly mobile, better-paying jobs

A conversation with Rachel Korberg, executive director, Families and Workers Fund

In this episode of Work in Progress, my guest is Rachel Korberg, executive director and co-founder of the Families and Workers Fund (FWF), a coalition of now more than 20 philanthropic groups working together to build an equitable economic recovery and create jobs that enable upward mobility.

The Families and Workers Fund was started last year in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic with the goal of helping ease the financial pain being suffered by low-wage workers—those who lost their jobs and those who had to continue working despite the risk to their health because they needed the money to survive.

“We know that before the pandemic, 40% of people in the United States did not earn enough money to afford the basics of rent, childcare, food. People were already in a very precarious position,” says Korberg.

“And then the layoffs hit hardest among people who were already at the bottom of the labor market. In 2020, nearly half of the lowest paid workers lost their jobs. Those jobs were people who worked in restaurants, people who worked in big box retail, people who worked in hospitality. The effects were really far- and wide-reaching, but they were clustered in people who were already earning the least, who are either in poverty wage jobs or just above it.”

FWF was created to get money into the hands of those who needed it quickly. Korberg—then a program officer at the Ford Foundation—co-founded it with Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation and Eric Braverman, CEO of Schmidt Futures, both of whom remain on as co-chairs of the Fund. That initial coalition grew in short order.

“It was really a sleeves rolled up group. We pooled about $10 million over the course of 2020, and rather than do cash transfers directly— which we didn’t think was the right role for us—we supported nearly 30 grassroots groups and worker networks that were already in long-term, authentic, trusting relationships with the hardest hit workers and families. And we supported them in doing cash transfer efforts.

“For some of them, they had already done work like this in the past, but for a lot, this was a new muscle that they were building and it was really exciting. There’s this really virtuous cycle of beyond just the payment. It’s also an opportunity to join up around advocacy, community building, and training opportunities.” And that’s what they’ve done.

Refocusing the Mission

Korberg says that while the Fund started as a rapid response to people in need, the organizers quickly realized that it was an unprecedented opportunity to build a more equitable economy, that is why is still exists, and that is why it has evolved. Rather than being a one-time $10 million emergency response fund, today it’s a $51 million coalition of about 20 diverse philanthropies with the twin goals of funding job pathways that enable economic security and mobility and repairing the unemployment benefits system.

“The confluence of three forces—essential workers, equity, and unprecedented public investment in (job creation)—really come together to create this huge opportunity to reimagine our labor market and economic systems and to go big on ultimately advancing good jobs and delivering a more effective and equitable social safety net,” Korberg tells me.

She says FWF sees two main strategies in advancing good jobs.

“Building ladders into upwardly mobile jobs—and that’s usually a train in place model—and then we see approaches that are more about growing the pie of good jobs. So, maybe starting with a job that might not pay very well, that might not have great benefits, and look at what are the different set of incentives or shifts that we can catalyze to make this a better job.

For example, rather than only reskilling home health care aides to become x-ray technicians, how can we also make home health care aides a job that pays better and that is a good job and that many people are called to that work and to care work? There’s no reason that the people who are caring for us shouldn’t be able to care for themselves and their families.”

There is much about the strategies to create better-paying jobs and expanding the social safety net in my conversation with Rachel Korberg. You can listen here, or you can find the podcast wherever you get your podcasts.

Episode 205: Rachel Korberg, Executive Director, Families and Workers Fund
Host & Executive Producer: Ramona Schindelheim, Editor-in-Chief, WorkingNation
Producer: Larry Buhl
Executive Producers: Joan Lynch and Melissa Panzer
Music: Composed by Lee Rosevere and licensed under CC by 4.0.

Download the transcript for this podcast here.
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