‘Working Bridges’ program helps employees keep cash on hand

ADDISON COUNTY — As people who come from low or moderate income backgrounds can attest, being constantly short on cash can itself be the biggest barrier to keeping a steady job. That’s the vicious cycle that the United Way of Addison County is seeking to address through its Working Bridges program.
“The program is designed to be that liaison between the employee and the employer,” said Suzanne Waldren, the Workplace Resource Coordinator for the United Way of Addison County. “For people who are all going through these life issues it can get really ugly. I’m just there to keep all these employees financially stable.”
Created by the former United Way of Chittenden County in 2007, Working Bridges was rolled out in 2014 here in Addison County. So far only Porter Hospital and Middlebury College have bought into the program, but the United Way is currently talking with four smaller employers in the area who are interested in taking advantage of this service for their employees.
While a huge part of Working Bridges is consulting with, offering guidance to, and finding resources for employees so they can cope with unexpected financial burdens, other services are offered as well. The program collaborates with North Country Credit Union, for example, to offer small loans to employees with no credit history.
Porter Hospital currently takes advantage of this small loan program and Middlebury College is looking to implement it for their employees this summer.
“Some employees who may be coming from, say, generational poverty don’t have a bank account and don’t really have any relationship at all with a bank,” said Cheryl Mullins, director of human resources at Middlebury College. “That can make it extremely challenging when there’s a need for some kind of short-term funding.
“The idea of (using this program) as opposed to just lending someone money or doing what other employers may do, a payroll advance or something like that, is to really help the employee establish a relationship with the bank — or credit union in this case — and if they successfully pay off the loan then they’ve established some credit history. So they’re building up some resources that then they would be able to use going forward to help themselves.”
Working Bridges also offers a short course for employees about budgeting and the basics of finances, paid for by their employer. “We periodically offer a class called EKG,” said Waldren. “‘Earn it, Keep it, Grow it.’ It’s over four different weeks and it is two hours a class. The employer lets them take those two hours from work and do this class. It teaches them finances and how to budget. It teaches them about credit scores and credit, about savings and retirement.”
“It can seem really overwhelming to try to deal with the immediate personal issue that’s going on and then try to navigate through the myriad social services agencies, state agencies and that sort of thing to try to figure out where there might be help,” said Mullins. “Working Bridges is really a conduit to narrow down very quickly and focus on where there might be resources to help people.”

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