Workforce Innovation Grant recipient celebrates 1,000th ride with WEDC, DWD, community and employer partners
WAUPACA, WI. MAY 17, 2023 – Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) Secretary and CEO Missy Hughes visited Waupaca Wednesday to celebrate the success of an innovative 24/7 rideshare program that’s helping residents build careers and employers build their workforces.
“Employees and businesses cannot thrive if workers aren’t able to get to work,” Hughes said. “Access to reliable, affordable, and safe transportation is a barrier to workers building careers and is a challenge our state needs to overcome to build our workforce. Programs like Waupaca County Catch-a-Ride mobilize communities, state government, nonprofits, and businesses to solve a complex challenge.”
The Waupaca County Catch-a-Ride program gave its first ride on Dec. 15 and hit its 1,000th ride on May 4, said Jeff Mikorski, executive director of the Waupaca County Economic Development Corporation (WCEDC), which oversees the service. The program is funded by a Workforce Innovation Grant of up to $3.2 million administered by WEDC and the Department of Workforce Development (DWD).
“With record-low unemployment at 2.5% and a record number of jobs, Wisconsin employers are seeking new ways to attract and retain skilled workers. Transportation is a critical factor in workforce attraction and retention in this region and across the state,” said Amy Pechacek, DWD secretary-designee. “By addressing transportation as a barrier to work, we can support employers’ ability to sustain operations and employees’ ability to maintain employment.”
On Wednesday, Waupaca County Catch-a-Ride partners including WCEDC, Feonix Mobility Rising, and Make the Ride Happen, as well as employers and community members, gathered at Waupaca Foundry to celebrate the program’s early success.
“We have helped a number of folks gain employment,” said Valerie Lefler, CEO and founder of Feonix-Mobility Rising, a national nonprofit that is helping run the Waupaca County Catch-a-Ride program. “We’ve helped folks maintain employment. We’ve helped people who are transplants from other states and are afraid to drive on snow or ice get to work safely. We’ve also helped individuals who were unhoused living in a rural community get a job for the first time in years.”
The Workforce Innovation Grant is currently subsidizing rides so users pay just $3 per ride, but to keep the program sustainable, the partners will need to look for other revenue sources and new ways to support low-income riders, said Holly Keenan, director of Make the Ride Happen, a project of Lutheran Social Services. Make the Ride Happen is working on case management to help connect riders with other available services.
“The majority of our riders want to go to work and get to work on time,” Keenan said. “Down the road we’re going to have to keep the costs affordable for these people.”
Waupaca Foundry has a number of employees who use the service. The company has been supportive of the program since it began, Mikorski said.
“It’s been very beneficial to have an alternative ride option to refer people to in situations where they don’t have access to a vehicle,” said Carmen Peskie, human resources manager at Waupaca Foundry. “I am happy to hear that we’ve had so many folks taking advantage of this opportunity.”
Antonio Ponce, who works third shift as a machine operator at the foundry, is one of those who uses the service. Ponce had been working in California, when a friend told him about the opportunities in Wisconsin and he decided to apply at Waupaca Foundry. He started at the foundry on Jan. 23 and at the time had no driver’s license and no car. He still doesn’t own a car and credits the ride program with allowing him to keep his job.
“I like my job, absolutely,” Ponce said. “I love having things to learn. Every single day is something different.”
ThedaCare has been another supportive employer working with Catch-a-Ride even before the program began in Waupaca County. In 2018, ThedaCare employees and community members identified transportation as an issue impacting both health and the economy. As a result, ThedaCare helped support Make the Ride Happen, a program of Lutheran Social Services, in Waupaca County to begin work on this issue.
“ThedaCare is committed to being a leader in Population Health, understanding the people in the population, getting ahead of health events before they occur, and providing care immediately when health issues begin,” said Kellie Diedrick, vice president of ThedaCare Medical Centers-New London and Waupaca. “Transportation is a vital condition that impacts a person’s health and well-being. By getting upstream and addressing a vital condition such as transportation, we hope to support a future where every person has the opportunity to live their unique, best life.”
Theresa “Kitty” Vollendorf works in the Emergency Department at ThedaCare Medical Center-New London. Having the ride service has provided Vollendorf peace of mind and access to transportation so she can support patients and families at the hospital.
“Due to medical issues, driving at night is sometimes hard for me and working mainly evening shifts involves a lot of night driving,” Vollendorf said. “In the past, I have been worried about getting home safely in the evenings. Now, with the ride program, I am picked up at my front door and dropped off at the entrance to work. The ease of the program gives me a positive way to begin my shift.”
Governor Tony Evers created the Workforce Innovation Grants in 2021 to help address the state’s most pressing workforce concerns such as worker training, child care, transportation, housing, and more. In two grant rounds, 27 regional coalitions of communities, nonprofits, businesses, and others were awarded more than $128 million.