By Sara Terry-Cobo, The Journal Record
OKLAHOMA CITY–When Mitchell Hearn began working with a demolition crew at the First National Center months ago, he didn’t like the job.
But he’ll soon earn his first paycheck, and he said he’s glad to bring home 10 percent of his earnings, about $29 for a 40-hour week. The other 90 percent is deducted for taxes, insurance, transportation and housing provided at a sober living residence. He’s among two dozen or so workers who have been volunteering six days per week, tearing out the inside of the historic building.
They’re transitioning from volunteers to workers as part of Firstep’s workforce training program. OKC Metro Alliance manages the Firstep initiative, whose participants are recovering from alcohol or substance abuse. The organization provides housing, a sober environment and work opportunities for both men and women.
Hearn is working to get his life on track and reconnect with his family. He spent nearly two months at a rehabilitation center in Kansas, but he was arrested in Oklahoma shortly after he returned to the state, charged with paraphernalia possession and giving a false name.“
My lesson was that if I can stay sober 50 days in Kansas and four days later get arrested in Oklahoma, I need help,” he said. “I’m here to change my life.”
OKC Metro Alliance Executive Director Connie Schlittler said she’s changing the business model so her organization can stay in compliance with federal labor regulations. Previously, Firstep workers were volunteers. If they were injured on the job, they were responsible for paying for their own medical treatment. The change allows Firstep to provide workers’compensation and other insurance as well as take out payroll taxes.
Employers contracting Firstep workers will pay the same $10-per-hour-per-worker rate.
Firstep employees, who are paid minimum wage, receive 10 percent of their earnings to spend. Having money will help participants pay monthly court fees, send a small amount to family members or save for use after they complete the program. The rest covers the transportation costs to deliver and pick up workers daily, and for their room and board.
Schlittler said she hopes the change will also help solve the dropout problem. Many participants leave before the six-month program is complete because they need to buy their children clothing or school supplies or need to pay court fees.
About 20 percent of graduates complete all five phases of the six-month program, said Firstep resident adviser Dedrick Perkins. More than half are self-admitted, even though they may have legal cases pending. Others are sent as part of a drug court program or are there at the insistence of family members.
There are 69 men working through Firstep’s contractor program and in 2017, 16 men were hired at companies where they worked as volunteers.
Brandy Williams with Williams Industrial Coatings hired a Firstep crew for a renovation contract at the First National Center. He said he heard about the program from a friend and was interested in trying it out. The Firstep workers are as good as any other day laborer and are more consistent, he said. They’ll arrive on time and they all have an incentive to work.
He said he thought it was important to give Firstep participants a second chance.
Williams has a contract with Cornerstone Development to remove walls, ventilation, wiring, pipes and leftover office equipment from the First National Center. Once the pre-demolition work is complete, developer Gary Brooks said he’ll begin asbestos removal using specially trained contractors.
Dustin Shahan also works on the Firstep crew and said he was fine with the idea of working for free for six months to cover the recovery services he gets. So he was at first frustrated when he learned he would get a paycheck. It’s not a lot of money and the cleanup work is hard, meticulous manual labor.
“But I guess that is selfish, ”Shahan said.“Because the recovery should be more important than the money.”
Hearn said his perspective evolved; now he loves the job. He said he draws strength from fellow Firstep participants and they generally get along well. His supervisors treat him and his co-workers with respect.“
They don’t treat us like we’re addicts, they treat us like we’re people, and that ’s amazing,” Hearn said.