The Millionair Club Charity orientation began promptly at 8 a.m., and the locked double doors that open to the ramp connecting the first and second floors were not propped open after the initial call went out. Those who didn’t move quickly enough were locked out, and had to wait and stare through the windows, hoping someone would come back for them.
It’s emblematic of the ethos of the Millionair Club Charity, a longstanding institution in the Seattle nonprofit network. They work to remove barriers to ensure that employees are successful in a job placement, but there are expectations, like at any job site.
Timeliness is definitely one of them.
A group of about 20 people shuffled in, each taking a seat at a terminal with a computer and a monitor lying face down, and looked up at Angele Leaptrot, the senior director of programs at the organization. The men and women won’t need the computers today, but if they stay in the program after the morning’s orientation, they will be back, crafting résumés, testing for their permits to serve food and alcohol and looking for work.
The orientation is three hours long, and Leaptrot moves through the curriculum with the practiced ease of a school teacher who has mastered her material, right down to the playful admonition as she lowered the lights to launch a 25-minute video.
“People who fall asleep, I’ll make you take it over again,” Leaptrot warned.
The orientation is the first step in the Millionair Club Charity’s path to employment, a journey that tries to meet each worker where they’re at and includes intense support and interaction with each potential new employee to raise the likelihood of success.
Where the city of Seattle and other major service providers emphasize a “housing-first” approach that prioritizes getting people inside and then dealing with other issues such as employment challenges or substance abuse issues, Millionair Club has a different approach — which Leaptrot refers to as a “work-first” approach — that grooms people for employment and teaches life skills.
It’s not for everyone. Leaptrot and other staff at the club acknowledge that some people who can’t transition back into the workforce will need housing and services. But the organization believes that many will get value out of the work-first philosophy.
“Our approach works for people who want it to work,” Leaptrot said. “I can tell who will be successful.”
It’s hard to classify the Millionair Club. To call it a day-labor center would be to ignore the meal program, which is open to anyone who needs a bite. Referring to it as a meal program would be to ignore the eye clinic upstairs that offers free exams and glasses. And an accurate description can’t exclude the career plan that each worker crafts one-on-one with a specialist, or the budgeting classes.
The Millionair Club Charity has maintained its basic mission of connecting people with work for the decades it has operated in Seattle, but the nonprofit’s size and scope of services has changed radically.
The Millionair Club Charity has maintained its basic mission of connecting people with work for the decades it has operated in Seattle, but the nonprofit’s size and scope of services has changed radically, growing from a startup in the basement of the Pioneer Square building that Real Change now occupies to a multimillion dollar service center in an office that it owns outright in Belltown.
Its staff members are flexible, altering the program in real time to solve new challenges and remove barriers that arise without missing a beat. Customers complained that workers asked for food on the site, so workers receive a sack lunch before they go out to a job. Staff realized that paying workers in cash could be perversely keeping them from housing — they had no way to build credit or demonstrate verifiable income. So, the organization changed payment methods and created a relationship with a local Wells Fargo branch to allow them to cash checks there, even if the worker in question doesn’t have a Wells Fargo account.
“We do everything to try and make it easier on our workers,” Leaptrot said.
Millionair Club Charity has been honing its methods since it opened in Pioneer Square in 1921. It was the brain child of Seattle businessman Martin G. Johanson, who believed that people who lost their jobs in the post-World War I economic downturn wanted to work rather than line up outside the soup kitchen.
If getting work is about who you know, Millionair Club Charity became that networking connection between people who need something done and people who have the capacity to do it.
The charity took people and placed them in open positions; if getting work is about who you know, Millionair Club Charity became that networking connection between people who need something done and people who have the capacity to do it. In a way, it is the original gig economy.
A typical day at the club starts early. The doors open at 6 a.m. as people are leaving nearby shelters for the day. The worker checks in with dispatch and gets on the job list, and then waits for their name to be called. While they wait, they can grab breakfast, charge their phones, take a shower and do laundry, all free.
The club encourages its workers to avail themselves of these services, even expanding the number of showers to meet the need. A clean presentation will help workers get and maintain stable work, Leaptrot told her class.
“So many jobs that you do will be dirty jobs, but that doesn’t mean you have to start out dirty,” Leaptrot warned. “It takes three seconds for people to make an impression.”
Workers get paid on Wednesdays for this kind of temp work. Before their first paycheck comes through, they receive bus tickets to get to and from job sites. A rotating cast of social services outfits set up shop in the dispatch room, offering signups for discount public transportation programs and free cell phones. Classes held on the second floor school workers on jobsite safety and budgeting skills.
Those day-labor jobs were Millionair Club Charity’s bread and butter for decades, but the mix of work — and the services offered by the charity — has expanded to include work with private businesses in recent years, an effort expanded by Ian Downs, the club’s social enterprise director.
The organization shifted from offering workers jobs helping private citizens with household work and day labor to operating as an instant temp services for large corporations including Microsoft, Tom Douglas restaurants, the Metropolitan Improvement District and the city’s sports stadiums.
(Downs hopes to add the new NHL team to the roster.)
Locking down the partnership with the stadiums was a catalyst for the change.
Locking down the partnership with the stadiums was a catalyst for the change, Downs said. Each event can require as many as 300 Millionair Club Charity workers, making it a proving ground for new workers full of teachable moments in customer service.
“We’ve created a program to get them ready,” Downs said.
All workers who go into the stadium jobs need a food-handler’s permit. The club pays the $10 fee for the permit and provides workers time on computers to get through the 45-minute test. It does the same for the $25 permit required to serve alcohol.
Permit in hand, the universe of hospitality and food service jobs opens up to the worker, while simultaneously removing the $35 barrier to employment.
Travis Jackson cut his teeth working at the stadiums. He was living in a clean and sober house in Des Moines — “Trying to get my life back on track,” he said — when a friend who worked as a chef at the stadiums told him about the program.
That year, spanning 2015 and 2016, was rough for Jackson. He was working through addiction and had matters outstanding at a drug court in Tacoma, forcing him to take early morning shifts so he could make his court appearances down south. He left the clean and sober house to move in with his mother in Fife, an arrangement that didn’t last. At one point, he ended up back in jail for 100 days, losing his housing yet again.
Through it all, however, Jackson had the club.
“Bus tickets, food, clothing when I needed it. They helped me with job searching on the web with free Wi-Fi,” Jackson said. “I’d come up and hang out sometimes last year with Ian and Rami and stop in and say hi. I miss those guys, want to come in and see them […] just to show my appreciation and gratitude.”
Jackson doesn’t work through the club anymore, but he does live in their transitional housing program, a 47-unit building called Kasota Apartments in Belltown, which lets him save money from his job in the Theo Chocolate shop in Fremont.
“I think there should be more resources, more places like the Millionair Club,” Jackson said. “I don’t think there’s anyone who can compare to that.”
The club incentivizes people to be ambitious, to treat the program as more than a way to earn pocket money. A step program developed last year asks people to complete certain requirements such as opening a bank account, taking classes and working a certain number of shifts in order to qualify to work for specific companies. Moving between some steps comes with a $100 bonus awarded in a small ceremony hosted on Fridays in which participants snack on cookies, drink coffee and talk about their successes.
Friday, April 13, wasn’t unlucky for Brandi Fox, who scooted into the computer lab just after 10:30 a.m. that morning.
“I’m late to my own graduation!” Fox said, snagging a seat in the back of the room.
Fox advanced to the “gold” step, the penultimate stage. Once she gets to “platinum,” Fox will get a pay bump to $15.50 an hour on supervisory jobs.
A traumatic experience while living in California left Fox unable to hold down regular work. She signed up for other temp agencies, but the jobs would dry up. But the Millionair Club Charity staff worked with her and showed her compassion and friendliness, Fox said.
“I’ve had a lot of self-esteem pick up since working here,” Fox said. “It’s been positive for me.”
Club staff argue that these kinds of results, this change in attitude when a person gets access to employment, have been mostly excluded from the debate around housing and homelessness in Seattle. This lack of consideration shows up in more barriers that the club then has to take down, such as shelter evening curfews that make it difficult to work.
“Jobs need to be part of the conversation,” Downs said. “We’re trying to ‘Rebuild Lives, One Job at a Time.’ Jobs and housing need to go together.”
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
Wait, there's more. Check out the full April 25 - May 1 issue.