Apr. 9, 2020 11:21 am

We are all social enterprises now

The coronavirus crisis "has fully exposed the certainty that investing in the welfare and talents of workers is inextricably linked to the success of our economy," says guest columnist Matt Bergheiser.

The Green City Works crew in action.

(Courtesy photo)

This guest column was written by Matt Bergheiser, president of University City District.
My favorite part has always been the 401k conversation.

I sit within earshot of our human resources director, and when new Green City Works employees arrive for their orientation, they are incredulous at this first opportunity in their lives to build wealth, matched dollar-for-dollar by their employer no less.

Green City Works (GCW), a landscaping business, is a nonprofit subsidiary of the economic development organization I run, University City District. GCW’s 17 employees, all West Philadelphians, all with uneven career paths and many bumps in the road along the way, have something in common: None had really been valued in jobs prior to this one, maybe not even by themselves. Their talents, skills and drive weren’t fully recognized as they pieced together Uber shifts and part-time jobs, struggling with long stretches of unemployment because life or past transgressions got in the way.

The company — small though it is — feels as though it has taken on outsized meaning in the time of coronavirus. Green City Works is a social enterprise, a competitive, market-responsive business that exists to serve customers and to create supportive, life-changing opportunities for its workforce. We modeled our people-first vision on the ideas and work of many who came before us. For example, the Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland are businesses that use anchor institution purchasing power to create jobs and wealth for neighboring communities grappling with poverty. And Greyston Bakery, a pioneering Yonkers, New York social enterprise, struck a deal in the late 1980s with Ben & Jerry’s to supply brownies for various ice cream flavors and adopted the mantra, ”We don’t hire people to bake brownies. We bake brownies to hire people.”

Cut from the same cloth as these exemplars, Green City Works is a special blend of business tenacity and human potential. Committed to a $15/hour minimum wage with internal promotions to crew leader positions that start at $19/hour; comprehensive health benefits and personal time off; year-round work in an industry that often fires its workforce every fall; and ongoing professional development and training, GCW has stood apart as a social enterprise in a field not known for investing in and advancing workers.

But we are all social enterprises now in this age of coronavirus, or at least we all need to be, as the crisis has fully exposed the certainty that investing in the welfare and talents of workers is inextricably linked to the success of our economy and its constituent businesses.

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In our case putting people first pays business dividends. My GCW colleagues who previously struggled with long bouts of unemployment are now managing $300,000 landscape installation projects. In total, Green City Works manages two million square feet of green space projects. The quality of their work is exemplary, and the character of their workforce is extraordinary. Just prior to Pennsylvania’s stay-at-home orders, we gathered our Green City Works team and gave them a choice of continuing to work or stay home at full pay with no loss of sick time. The next day, every single person on the crew came to work.

A long time ago, on the orders of my 11th grade English teacher, I begrudgingly  read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, the dystopian classic about how leading industrialists — tired of carrying the world on their shoulders — abandon their companies and organize a strike of society’s seemingly most essential individuals.

Coronavirus, of course, has flipped the entire Atlas Shrugged narrative. The grocers, the warehouse workers, the medical assistants, the delivery workers are now carrying the world on their shoulders, as will be the landscapers who create the beautiful green spaces to which we are desperate to return.

Let us not forget that they all are the backbone of our society and our economy when we make it to the other side of our current predicament.


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