East Bay Innovations launches career training for its workers

Claire Verbinski has “been working at East Bay Innovations for 11 years as a Community Living Assistant, which is at the bottom of the career ladder. I want to learn more, but I also have a lot to offer with my all years of experience.”

Now Claire can have it both ways, thanks to a landmark $75,000 grant from the Alameda County Workforce Investment Board to provide career advancement training for 30 EBI employees. East Bay Innovations is a San Leandro-based nonprofit agency that assists persons with developmental disabilities to live independent lives. Right after a ceremony on Wednesday to celebrate the award, the workers filled out their ACWIB-required paperwork so that training could start immediately.

The grant is groundbreaking because it marks the first time any of California’s 49 WIB’s has funded an incumbent worker training program in the developmental disabilities (DD) field. Upon completing the 70-hour training, participating EBI service providers will receive a $1 per hour raise immediately as well as strong consideration for promotion into open positions.

The union difference

Moreover, the program came about directly due to EBI’s partnership with SEIU 1021. The nonprofit and the union signed a first contract almost exactly a year ago. EBI didn’t merely embrace the spirit of the Employee Free Choice Act (not dead, just sleeping) by agreeing to card check and employer neutrality; Executive Director Tom Heinz actually brought the union in to represent EBI’s direct service workers precisely because it would open the door for opportunities like this one to pioneer a career ladder in the DD field.

“We can’t achieve our mission unless we change the experience for the workers,” said Heinz. California’s 8,000 nonprofits serving persons with developmental disabilities employ about 100,000 social workers and direct support staff statewide. Only a handful employ more than 400; EBI has about 150 full- and part-time workers and managers.

Something old, something new

In such a fragmented field, low pay and the lack of industry-supported training and meaningful career paths mean that worker turnover often reaches 50 percent per year — a traumatic experience for those receiving long-term care who find their caregiver changing every six months. EBI was no exception; its response was to change the game instead.

The DD industry’s particular dilemma is that when the economy is bad, funding gets cut, but when the economy is good, nonprofits like EBI cannot compete with the private sector on wages and benefits. The result is that it’s impossible to attract and retain qualified workers.

This is not the first collaboration between EBI and Alameda County. In partnership with SEIU 1021, EBI reactivated the county’s long-dormant “Step Up” program. The Board of Supervisors accepted EBI’s proposal for a job training program that would place people with developmental disabilities into union jobs in public service, where they would have stable, meaningful work with good pay and a career ladder for their future.

EBI’s first union contract is “the beginning, not the end, and we’ve got a long way to go,” Heinz said at last year’s signing ceremony. “We can’t expect people with developmental disabilities to become empowered unless the workforce is empowered.” A year later, they’ve taken the first step.

This article originally appeared in Newswire, the newsletter of local 1021, in September.

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