Co-op and nonprofits team up helps find jobs for those facing adversity

Jeanne Howell of Cedar Rapids checks bottles of curry powder last Monday before she packages them for shipping at Fronti
Jeanne Howell of Cedar Rapids checks bottles of curry powder last Monday before she packages them for shipping at Frontier Co-Op in Norway. Howell found out about the program that led to the job while she was staying at the Catholic Worker House in Cedar Rapids after she temporarily became homeless. Since September, the Catherine McAuley Center and Willis Dady Homeless Services nonprofits have partnered with natural foods manufacturer Frontier Co-op to help residents obtain self-sufficiency through employment. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

NORWAY, Iowa — For Jeanne Howell, getting a new job meant she was “getting my sight back.”

Howell was a semitractor-trailer driver for 20 years before developing a cataract in her right eye, diminishing her eyesight and forcing her to quit work.

“I found myself in Cedar Rapids with no job, nowhere to live,” she said. “I was living on the street.”

She was homeless for a short period before finding a place to stay at the Catholic Worker House in town. While there, she applied for a new program that offered individuals like her long-term employment — opening the door to stable housing, health insurance and other benefits that would get her back on her feet.

The apprenticeship program was born from a common interest between two Cedar Rapids organizations, the Catherine McAuley Center and Willis Dady Homeless Services. Since September, the nonprofits have partnered with natural foods manufacturer Frontier Co-op in an effort to help residents obtain self-sufficiency through employment.

Currently, 18 people are working at Frontier as apprentices.

“Because our goal is to really help people to build skills and find stability, we really see this as aligning very much with our goal of helping people toward self-sufficiency,” said Paula Land, executive director of the Catherine McAuley Center.

For Willis Dady, a large part of that means its clients will not have to return to homelessness, said Phoebe Trepp, Willis Dady executive director.


The program not only enables the organizations to help low-income, refugee or struggling clients find stable employment, it also fills a need for skilled workers at Frontier’s facility.

Iowa’s unemployment rate dipped to 2.4 percent at the end of 2018, a historic low, according to Iowa Workforce Development. Carrie Albaugh, talent retention specialist at Frontier, said that meant the company needed to get creative to find skilled workers.

“We wanted to give back to the local communities and it just so happened these two organizations had a handful of people who were looking for jobs and were talented and skilled,” Albaugh said. “The stars kind of aligned really nicely.”

Officials involved with the program also are ensuring the apprentices can make it to work.

Because Frontier’s facility is based in Norway — about 17 miles from Cedar Rapids — it’s unreachable by public transportation. A van, driven by Catherine McAuley Center employees, transports workers to and from their shifts each day for $5 a day out of their paychecks.

Frontier provided financial investment at the start of the program, and continues to match the $5 rider fee for individuals taking the van to the facility.

Apprentices also are entitled to other benefits from the company, including its cafe at lunchtime. “We started that because a couple of people were not getting the nutrients they needed to make it through an eight-hour shift,” said Emily Zimmon, employment and outreach programs manager at Willis Dady.

Since September, 35 individuals have been accepted into the program.

Screening for candidates is conducted by Willis Dady and the Catherine McAuley Center, which place candidates in the program as jobs open at Frontier.

And if they demonstrate a good work ethic, apprentices could be hired as permanent employees when positions are available.


“So we’re going to do everything we can to support them getting there and getting their foot in the door — but ultimately, it’s really on them to show that they are somebody worth hiring,” Land said.

Howell is one of the five apprentices hired on as full-time employees with Frontier since September. She was hired in December after two months as an apprentice, and now works on the second shift as a production helper on the floor.

On a recent Monday, that meant she was on a production line bottling curry powder. She checked each label and the codes at the bottom of the jar before boxing them up and sending them to distribution.

Pay for apprentices starts at $11.25 an hour. They’re get a 25-cent increase if they don’t miss work for 10 days in a row. They also receive a pay increase if hired on full-time.

Officials opted for an apprenticeship rather than a temporary worker program, as that allows employees to be hired within 30 days of their start date, Trepp said.

“So for us, it adds a ton of value for that person to get hired on right away,” she said.

Apprentices are hired based on demand, and can be laid off if the position is no longer needed. So far, that has happened on three occasions, Trepp said.

It’s a program advocates hope to model elsewhere at other companies in the Cedar Rapids area. Trepp said they hope to find other business partners with similar long-term interests — meaning their clients have a chance to earn full-time employment with benefits.


“We’re not looking at partnering with anyone who needs temporary labor, because the goal for us is really employment,” Trepp said. “We see this as an immediate way to get someone cash in their pocket, but ultimately, that hopefully will lead to a full-time job for the majority of clients.”

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