'I Feel Like A Citizen Now': Working Fields Helps Vermonters In Recovery Find—And Keep—Work
Working Fields is a private staffing agency, matching job seekers with companies that have labor holes to fill. But unlike other staffing agencies, Working Fields was created for people in recovery from addiction, and people with histories of conviction. Currently they’re operating in five Vermont counties, with plans to expand.
Independent producer Erica Heilman talked with Working Fields founder, Mickey Wiles.
Mickey Wiles was a high flyer in the business world. He was previously the CFO of Ben and Jerrys and the CFO of Seventh Generation. He was really good at his job.
He also had a problem with alcohol, even though by the time he was working these jobs, he wasn’t drinking. But the addiction problems came back differently, and this time, he says the addictive behavior ended in embezzlement and a federal prison time.
"... People that come from a higher socioeconomic background tend to have much better resources and support systems around them. Although it's not easy, they have an easier path to recovery than an individual who comes from generational poverty." - Mickey Wiles, founder of Working Fields
When Wiles got out, he was genuinely contrite. He paid all the money back, and he was back in a recovery program.
He was also educated, upper middle class and well connected. Micky Wiles could go back to work. But he’d met a lot of people in prison and in recovery who had a much harder time.
Micky Wiles: So we have this percentage of the population that have addiction problems and or criminal conviction problems. It impacts all socioeconomic levels. However, people that come from a higher socioeconomic background tend to have much better resources and support systems around them. Although it’s not easy, they have an easier path to recovery than an individual who comes from generational poverty, a life of substance use addiction all around them, a life where they were never given the financial means or the opportunities or proper education. And even though there are programs and social services, they don’t even know how to find them. They don’t know how to navigate the system. Their journey is much tougher.
There’s stigma around substance use addiction; there’s stigma around people with convictions. There are plenty of people who don’t understand it and don’t believe that people change.
Then there’s a group of the population that may want to be helpful and do want to provide assistance, but they don’t know how. They don’t know how to hire people in recovery or with past convictions. They don’t know how to evaluate them or measure their progress or give them the support they need. That’s not something that’s taught in business school.
So I knew the solution was that if we could get people employed — there are several attributes that really help successful recovery, and employment’s one of them because employment builds self-esteem, provides financial resources that are sorely needed for people who have created a bunch of issues in their lives, and it takes up time. Time is a killer in early recovery. So if you take employment and you support it with recovery coaching, you all of a sudden have a formula for success.
Recovery coaching is not therapy, or treatment. It’s more like practical life coaching for people in recovery, and they support people with issues as disparate as relationships, or how to get to the DMV for a license or filling out paperwork for GED coursework — the endless logistical challenges of starting a new life.
A lot of people just getting out of jail try to find work through temp agencies. But these temp agencies don’t accept people who have felonies. So what happens if you support people and start a staffing agency, partnering with companies who are willing to give people a second chance?
That's what Wiles set out to do.
Mickey: So I said, "We can fill that gap, put people to work the same way they do," but by going to employers and filling their hiring needs, but then supporting them with strong account management and strong recovery coaching. And that was the model I developed and built and implemented.
Mike Bouchard has struggled with addiction, and he’s been in and out of jail for selling drugs. He’s also struggled to find regular work.
Mike: As soon as you tell them you have a felony, they pretty much tell you to hook it. You can get a construction job pretty easily and odds of you succeeding are pretty slim because everybody on the job site’s either doing pills, or smoking marijuana or drinking, so it’s pretty easy to go back to who you were, with that kind of job.
I could’ve gotten one of those jobs; I just didn’t want one because I knew what would happen. I’ve done that already. So Working Fields pretty much saved my life, honestly, because I’d probably be out there slinging drugs.
Mickey: What we do as recovery coaches is we help connect people to the appropriate social service agencies, but we also help navigate them through that because a lot of times either they don’t have the right skillset. And sometimes it’s just a level of confidence. Somebody in early recovery doesn’t necessarily have the confidence to go in and be an advocate for themselves.
"I feel like a citizen now, in a way, instead of a hindrance. I'm not a hindrance. Things didn't come easy - that's for sure. But I had reassurance. And with that you can go a pretty far." - Mike Bouchard
It’s housing, transportation, legal issues, relationship issues, you name it. There’s several different areas we look at with them. We then put a plan together. We get them a job. We get them working and moving forward and support their progress, not only in their job but in their recovery.
Mike: When I first started through Working Fields, I didn’t have a valid ID. And to become full time, you have to have a valid ID, a social security card and a birth certificate. When you do become full time, you have an identity, basically. Working Fields vouches for you while you have none of these things. They put your foot in the door.
Erica: Why does the success of this business matter to me?
Mickey: So the reason why it should matter to everybody is that we have a certain percentage of the population that are going to be people who, for whatever reasons — environmental, hereditary — are predisposed to substance use addiction, or their environments have created a situation where they’ve made bad choices, gotten into criminal situations.
But at the end of the day, they are people that are in our community, they’re going to be here. They have as much right to walk the streets as anybody else does. And if we can help them and elevate them out of these problems and situations, then what they become are contributing members of society.
Erica: Do you feel like you’re in the world now? When you’re out in the world do you feel like you’re in the regular world now?
Mike: Yeah. I feel like ... What do you call it? … I feel I’m a community … person? I’m not saying it right …
Erica: A citizen?
Mike: Yeah. I feel like a citizen now, in a way, instead of a hindrance. I’m not a hindrance. Things didn’t come easy — that’s for sure. But I had reassurance. And with that you can go a pretty far.
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