Written by ALEX DANIELS of The Chronicle of Philanthropy Chronicle of Philanthropy
A fund created by a group of social-justice-minded foundations including Ford and Rockefeller and donors like Jack Dorsey and MacKenzie Scott shortly after COVID hit has more than quadrupled in size to $51 million and is now pouring money into activities and advocacy to strengthen the social safety net and increase worker pay.
Among the efforts it is funding: building a new career option by training people who can help the nation recover after natural disasters and persuading employers that these roles — dubbed resiliency workers — deserve decent compensation.
“The recovery from COVID-19 really is an opportunity to reimagine our economic and labor market systems,” says Rachel Korberg, the fund’s executive director and co-founder. “Today is our once-in-a-generation shot to build a more equitable economy.”
When it was created in the early months of the pandemic, the Families and Workers Fund had a singular goal: alleviate the financial pain the pandemic was inflicting on low-wage workers who were either taking great risks to stay on the job or were suddenly shut out of work because of the health crisis.
Drawing from a set of social-justice and tech donors that included the Amalgamated, Ford, and JPB foundations, along with Abigail Disney and Schmidt Futures, which is the philanthropic vehicle of Google founder Eric Schmidt and his wife, Wendy, the fund made $10 million in grants, largely in the form of cash to workers missing their paychecks.
Since then, the fund has picked up new donors, including MacKenzie Scott and Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey. The Rockefeller and Roger I. and Ruth B. MacFarlane foundations are also backing the fund.
The growth in the Families and Workers Fund comes as other foundations are also moving to address the needs of low-wage workers. Blue Meridian Partners, a coalition of grant makers and donors, created a $150 million relief fund to both make direct cash payments to people and improve the delivery of public benefits. And the Omidyar Network, founded by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, committed $35 million toward its “Reimagining Capitalism” effort, which includes support for increasing workers rights.
Resilience Force, a nonprofit that trains workers to prepare for and respond to natural disasters, received a $1.5 million grant from the Families and Workers Fund to improve wages and benefits of workers who provide critical recovery services to cities that have been hit by disasters.
The nonprofit promotes the idea of a new work-force category in the age of climate-induced disasters: the resilience worker, who can be a day care provider, a construction worker, or a building inspector, all of whom provide essential services in the wake of a disaster. Saket Soni, the group’s executive director, envisions training thousands of people to be permanent resilience workers who are employed by cities and nonprofits across the country.
A test project provided training to 100 people, most of whom had been earning the minimum wage at service jobs before the pandemic put them out of work. A high proportion of the people who received training, Soni says, were people of color and immigrants, who make up a large share of the workers who rebuild after a disaster.
Those workers are usually underpaid, put themselves at risk, and are often hired by unscrupulous contractors who don’t pay them after they put in the work.
“The resilience work force is largely a low-wage work force. It’s largely unrecognized and largely unprotected,” Soni says. “These people doing heroic work that we can count on but all the while they’re hanging by a thread.”
In the program Soni developed with the city of New Orleans, workers are paid $12 an hour initially and receive health benefits. During the pandemic, they served as contract tracers and provided vaccine information to people in the city.
Following Hurricane Ida in August, they worked to inspect buildings, serve as case workers to victims of the storm, and ripped mold out of flooded buildings.
Using money from the Families and Workers Fund, Soni hopes to spread the idea to cities across the country so that resilience workers become as permanent a part of city services as fire departments.
Sarita Gupta, director of the Ford Foundation’s Future of Work(ers) program and co-founder of the fund, believes the reliance of low-paid workers throughout the pandemic has resulted in a broader public understanding of how difficult it is to live on a low wage.
“The opportunity of the fund right now is to reaffirm that essential workers deserve dignity and respect,” she says. “And this means good and safe jobs with wages and benefits and protections that all workers deserve”
The race to get cash into the hands of workers last year gave Korberg and the fund’s donors a deeper understanding of the obstacles faced by low-income workers.
Two of the biggest problems, Korberg says, are the inability of workers to get timely unemployment or relief payments and the lack of higher paying jobs that offer benefits and the possibility of promotion. These problems are especially challenging for people of color, immigrants, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ workers, Korberg says.
One of the first grants the fund made with its new focus was to the New Practice Lab at New America. a Washington think tank, to analyze how federal benefit systems performed during the pandemic and offer a set of recommendations for improvements.
Some of the problems identified included the denial or delay of benefits to people with two-letter last names that computer systems in some jurisdictions often read as an incomplete entry.
The glitch, Korberg says, disproportionately hit Asian people with names like “Wu “or “Ho.”
Another technical problem that results in an inequitable delivery of benefits comes when multiple benefit applications come from the same address. When that happens, computer systems may flag applications for fraud. Often those reflect applications from homeless shelters. When those payments are delayed, Korberg says, they hurt the people who need them most.
The New Practice Lab’s report was the result of a “sprint” — an approach commonly used in the tech development process to quickly identify solutions to business problems.
That’s where the Silicon Valley pedigree of some of the fund’s donors came into play, Korberg says. Ryan Burke, a director at Schmidt Futures and adviser to the Families and Workers Fund, was closely involved in the sprint.
“She was working around the clock, embedded in this and understanding what went right and what went wrong with government tech systems and bringing those insights back to us,” Korberg says. “That’s not something we would have without having our tech philanthropy partners in the room.”