Second Chance Employer Profile
Mickey Wiles, the founder of Working Fields staffing agency, had first-hand experience of the need for second chance employment. A former CFO of Ben & Jerry’s and Seventh Generation, he also was a long-term substance abuser, who served a two-year prison term for white-collar crime.
It was his experience in a federal prison that inspired him to create Working Fields. Wiles found that being incarcerated provided an opportunity for change. His work as a cook allowed him to connect with people, and he came out of incarceration with a new perspective on the privileges he had that others didn’t and wanted to give back.
His way of giving back was to create Working Fields. Founded in 2016, the staffing agency operates in Vermont, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. With headquarters in Burlington, Vt., it has offices in St. Alban, Vt., and Greenfield, Mass. Staff members also make weekly visits to three temporary offices located in partner agency sites, where they spend the day meeting with potential temporary employees.
The company has 11 full-time staff, many of whom are in recovery. It also has about 90 temporary workers on the payroll at any given time. About 60 percent of those have a conviction, and at least one-third have felonies. As an employment agency, Working Fields specializes in temp-to-perm, with the goal of launching its employees on to full-time employment.
It partners with employers in more than 14 different industries, including transportation, food preparation, health care, construction and nonprofit work. Most jobs are entry level positions, with those that require the least training the most ideal.
Second chance hiring practices
What sets Working Fields apart from other employment agencies is the support it provides to employees through its 15 to 20 part-time peer coaches.
“They’re the core of our model,” says Daryn Fogeron, the company’s marketing manager. “We’re a staffing agency that adds on peer support as a totally free service for our job searchers.”
Employees meet with the coaches on a weekly basis at a time that works with their schedule. The first three sessions they will go through an assessment of 19 different aspects of their life to figure out what to focus on. This will determine the goals they will set to not only be successful in their jobs but in their personal lives as well.
“A key part of what the peer counselors do is resource provision,” says Fogeron. “If you need to get better housing or your driver’s license renewed, they can help you. They know which offices to call to get the resources that you need.”
Anyone can work at Working Fields, regardless of their background or skills. “We accept everybody. We don’t turn anyone away,” says Fogeron. “The way that we screen people is by building trust and having really, honest in-depth conversations. We have a huge range of employers and can send people with different backgrounds to different opportunities.
The qualifications for potential employees are all over the board, with positions ranging from sorting recycling materials for a waste management company and working on an assembly line to accounting managers and jobs for those wanting to go into nursing.
The model that Working Fields has created is attractive to employers, according to Fogeron. “It takes the risk away, so that they can hire employees they may not consider otherwise. The employees are on our payroll. We hire them out. We’re the employer of record. Any risk falls on us. The employer has a period to try out the employee. It’s a kind of try before you buy situation.”
Those employees come from referrals that Working Fields gets from places like probation and parole, mental health agencies, recovery centers, homeless centers and halfway houses. Just about anyone with people in need of employment who are facing barriers.
The company has about 125 employer partners scattered through Vermont, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. It recruits them by working with chambers of commerce and local business groups. It also attends conferences. And staff speak on panels to inform businesses about the opportunities available.
One of the barriers that its employees face is a lack of transportation. Only one-third of Vermont’s towns have public transportation, and over half of the people that work for Working Fields don’t have a driver’s license. As a result, Working Fields decided to operate a van that drives people to and from work in two northwest Vermont counties. It runs 24 hours each day through three shifts and allows people to access jobs they wouldn’t have been able to without this service.
Working Fields also operates a small work release program, with less than 10 employees, at a packaging plant through its Springfield, Mass., office in partnership with the Franklin County Dept. of Corrections.
Although successful in promoting second chance hiring, the company has faced several challenges. “One of the biggest challenges is getting buy-in from companies beyond just the initial excitement. There’s often a champion or two at a company, but that’s different from a company where the culture is truly bought in,” says Fogeron. For example, when a new employee is warmly welcomed by the person next to them on the assembly line.
In spite of the challenges, there are many rewards.
“One of them is that you are making a positive effect on people’s lives,” she says. “The other is that slowly, but surely, we’ve seen the changes that come as a result of the work. When we place someone who has a background in a place that has never had this type of employee, all of the sudden there’s an openness and honesty at that workplace that wasn’t there before. Human resources comes back to us saying, ‘I’m having the most honest interviews of my life.’ We are attacking the shame and stigma that exists in a lot of society. It holds back everyone who has to bury pieces of themselves. Employers thank us for allowing new honesty, and it open workplaces in ways that they never expected.”