Are Your Employees Underwater?

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When it comes to fair wages and opportunity, it often feels as if workers all across America are underwater or taking their last gasps of air. I’m talking about the shocking numbers of hard working citizens who are struggling in ways they never could have imagined and are one crisis, set back or lost paycheck away from disaster.

This country was built on the promise of opportunity. The promise that any hard-working person could make a decent living, improve their lives and provide the basics for their family regardless of the industry or skill-level of their profession. That was a big promise. The kind of promise that helped draw so many here to America that it built this country from a small colony to a world power in just a few generations. For centuries, Americans have put their trust in it. They have put the faith of their families and their collective destinies into the belief that our nation—the land of opportunity—will allow all their hard work to pay off. And, because that great promise of America was there, they were very willing to sacrifice and work extremely hard. As a first generation American, I know my parents believed in that promise. No doubt your parents or grandparents or great grandparents felt the same. That solemn promise is just as important to the American worker today as it was 300 years ago. Unfortunately, we’ve been failing them.

The United States is in the midst of a battle for the dignity of the American worker and the very life of the American dream. Our nation’s income inequality is in the most drastic state in recent memory. It is estimated that 160,000 of America’s richest own more wealth than 145 million of the poorest. What’s more, our country is fighting over whether workers deserve basic benefits such as a livable minimum wage or parental leave. Far too often, our workers aren’t being valued; they’re being treated as expendable resources rather than citizens who are vital to the economic health of the United States. We have strayed far away from the promise of America and opportunity. Fair wages and a shared prosperity has simply not kept pace with the challenges facing our employees and their families.

Middle class

Philadelphia is center stage in the battle for dignity and fairness in the workplace. This year, the City of Philadelphia raised the minimum wage for individuals working for City Contractors to $12.00 an hour, almost $2.00 above what the Federal Government has called for. Recently, Mayor Nutter signed a law requiring businesses with 10 or more employees to give workers at least one hour of paid sick leave for every 40 hours worked. This law has been praised by national leaders like Hillary Clinton and, most recently, Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to President Obama on this issue, who just visited our city to show her support for the measure. Although the law is being contested by lawmakers in Harrisburg, I believe Philadelphia will prevail. As a city where poverty is such a profound problem, where an estimated 400,000 citizens live in poverty, Philadelphia has an important role to play in showing the rest of the nation how to value workers as people; how to honor the promise we’ve made them.

Leading from the Inside

So what can leaders at all levels of the City do about the dignity of the American worker? How can they affect this kind of systemic and cultural change? Leading from the inside is a great place to start. At the helm of the day-to-day operations of municipalities, city managers have the opportunity, as both large employers and government executives, to set an example for the rest of the city on how to value employees.

With more than 30,000 employees, Philadelphia City government is the 2nd largest employer in the city, second only to the Federal Government. That is significant both in terms of direct impact and influence. But it doesn’t end there, government should also work to set the standard for other significant organizations and institutions in the region. Far too often, the public sector trails the private sector in best practices. In Philadelphia, whether it’s around progressive policies or in driving innovation (like in the creation of an Innovation Lab ), we have tried to turn that model on its head. That is a new form of public sector leadership with government working to be a leader and early adopter. Supporting employees should be no different.

The Center of Excellence

While a city government is fairly constrained in the kind of monetary compensation it can provide, a municipality can invest in its employees and their future in many ways. In 2012, we launched the Center of Excellence to support and develop the city government’s workforce. We wanted to find a cost-effective way to invest in our employees. The Center of Excellence specializes in organizational development, project management, and performance management. The small team provides trainings, strategic consultation sessions, and facilitates performance management meetings across city government. The Center of Excellence also manages the Mayor’s Returning to Learning Program which helps City employees further their education and pursue college degrees with a 25% (or more) discount with area universities. By offering training, consultations, and opportunities for higher education, employees have a chance to get a better job, make more money, and better realize the American dream for themselves and their family.

Working with the Coalition of the Willing

While each function of the Center of Excellence has been successful, the numbers around its training sessions speaks to the greater need for these offerings. The Center of Excellence offers training in leadership development, supervisory skills, project management skills, and other more focused areas. This success helps to combat the unfair stereotype of the comfortable bureaucrat. In these sessions, employees have proven themselves eager to improve; committed to public service, and they continue to believe in that American promise. These classes fill-up within 24 hours every time they’re posted. In its tenure, the COE has delivered over 4,000 hours of training to over 500 employees across every City department. That translates to more than $4,000,000 in taxpayer savings plus the additional cost savings from the recommendations and efficiencies produced.

Recently my office created a video explaining the functions of our Center of Excellence and how we expect it to support our workforce.

The City of Philadelphia’s Center of Excellence is comprised of Jackie Linton, Laila Alequresh, Edward Garcia, John Curtis, Caitlin McDonald, Darren Johnson, and Suzanne O’Donnell.

 What’s in it for You?

Last week, Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini raised the minimum wage of Aetna employees to $16.00 an hour along with adding a robust professional development program.  He said, “We’re going to invest in them. We’re going to give them all a chance. We’re going to educate them in a new way, but we needed to engage them first.” A recent analysis by the Gallup Organization found that organizations that support employees and create high levels of employee engagement report 22% higher productivity. That usually equates to more profits. By valuing employees, investing in professional development and creating a supportive workplace culture, any business can see those gains. That is the very definition of a win-win!

I hope the Center of Excellence and this video isn’t only interesting to you but that it’s useful as a model on how governments, city managers or any employer, can help fight for a shared prosperity. Ultimately, what’s good for the employee is good for the company—and all THAT is good for the country.  As we work to recapture the American dream, let’s hope all these efforts become the type of life saver that keeps all of us above water.

Rich headshot 1Rich Negrin is the City of Philadelphia’s Managing Director and Deputy Mayor for Administration and Coordination. Service Centered Leadership is the Managing Director’s blog series appearing on PhillyInnovates. Follow Rich on Twitter @RichNegrin.

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