Early every weekday morning, day laborers check in at In Every Story to pick up their job assignments and, hopefully, begin to transition to a better life.
Photos by Leigh Webber
Derek Snook's social enterprise staffing company, In Every Story, pays higher wages, rewards reliability and hard work, and aims to transition workers to full-time jobs.
It’s 5:45 a.m. and still dark in Charleston, South Carolina, darker still in the shadows beneath Interstate 26, the main corridor into the low country’s booming hub. Despite the hour, a steady trickle of commuters is already moving on the freeway. But beneath the overpass, another group of people -- one literally passed over -- is also headed to work … or so they hope.
Trudging along or pedaling rusty bikes, the men (mostly) and a few women, many of them homeless, are some of the 65,000 South Carolinians who work temporary jobs. As day laborers, they are on the bottom rung of a shaky employment ladder.
Across the country, the typical day-labor story goes like this: show up early; hope for work; take whatever job (roofing, ditch digging, pouring concrete …) is available; work for eight-plus hours; get paid minimum wage -- $7.25 an hour in Charleston and most places. Next day, if the job is still available and you’re able (i.e., are sober, not sick, not injured; have child care, have transportation): repeat.
The fringe benefits? None. No sick days, no health insurance, no job security, no way to get ahead.
But here in Charleston, Derek Snook is working to rewrite that narrative of day labor, changing the way the story unfolds both for workers and for those who hire them. Founded four years ago, Snook’s social enterprise staffing company, In Every Story, is taking an innovative approach to the day-labor market.
Grounded in Snook’s faith and built upon his deep understanding of the need for a different kind of day-labor agency, In Every Story pays workers higher wages, rewards reliability and hard work and ultimately aims to transition workers to full-time jobs.
By its very nature, the conventional day-labor market can be exploitative, Snook said, with agencies charging employers at least $13 to $15 an hour and pocketing the difference. Vulnerable and often underpaid, the workers can become trapped in a no-win situation.
Learned the hard way
Despite his college degree and middle-class upbringing, Snook, 29, knows what he’s talking about. He learned the hard way. A few years ago, the Charleston native and preacher’s kid lived in a homeless shelter and worked alongside other shelter residents as one of Charleston’s day laborers.
“Day labor was one of the most miserable and demeaning things I’ve done,” Snook said.
In one particularly grueling assignment, Snook pulled heavy-duty cable all day for $7.25 an hour while a foreman harassed the temp crew.
“To put it in perspective, I lived in the shelter quite happily for a year but only lasted two weeks working day labor,” he said.
The experience led Snook to ask a simple question: What would a staffing agency look like if its goal was to bring heaven closer to earth?
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From that, Snook began to envision a day-labor company that would help to improve the lives of low-income workers, initially in Charleston and perhaps eventually in cities across the country.
Today, In Every Story (IES) places an average of 70 workers a day in temporary jobs in construction, landscaping and tourism/hospitality industries. Like day laborers everywhere, the people who come to IES looking for work typically face barriers to employment in other settings. Some are homeless, lack transportation, have limited education or a criminal record or history of substance abuse, or perhaps a mix of any or all of the above.
To help them overcome those barriers, IES provides transportation to the job site if needed, guarantees a more sustainable wage of at least $8 an hour and pays weekly rather than daily in order to encourage savings.
The company also gives workers a chance to share in the profits. After being on the payroll for 150 hours, workers can earn a share of 10 percent of the company’s profits, with the share increasing each month that the worker clocks in at least 150 hours. After the fourth month, the worker also receives an additional $150 bonus.
The bottom line: after four months, workers can earn about 31 percent more than they would have earned at minimum wage, Snook said.
The goal is not only to help employees “live their best story” with sustainable wages and a shot at full-time employment but also to elevate the day-labor industry more broadly, Snook said.
“We want to create a better business model for day labor,” Snook said.
The plot unfolds
The plot of In Every Story unfolded in tandem with Snook’s own winding spiritual and professional journey. After graduating from Furman University in 2008, Snook taught school in East Africa for several months and applied to graduate school in history.
Anxiously waiting to hear from the Ph.D. programs, not knowing what the future might hold, he made a promise one day that has steered his course ever since.
“I sat in the back of a fourth-grade classroom in Kenya and told God that if he gave me something meaningful and purposeful to do with my life, I wouldn’t quit unless it was complete or he said it was time to quit,” Snook said.
Whatever that “something” might be, a series of rejection letters soon let him know that it wasn’t going to be graduate school.
Ego-bruised, unsure what direction to take, Snook returned to Charleston and ended up at the Star Gospel Mission. To be clear, the articulate and personable young entrepreneur who’s wooed crowds on the TEDx stage didn’t land at the shelter the usual way, via bad luck, poor choices and bottoming out. He opted in.
Having previously volunteered at the mission, Snook felt called not only to go back there and be of service but also to understand what it felt like to live on the margins of society. He wanted to figure out how to bridge a gap that he had observed back in Africa.
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“In Africa, I realized there was often a disconnect between those who wanted to help, those who really understood how to help and those on the receiving end,” he said. The only way he thought he could find a solution was to get as close as he could to “those on the receiving end.”
“If, as a Christian, I believe that Christ came to insert himself in my shoes, then I should be willing to do that with others,” Snook said. “I wanted to grind my faith against action and see what would happen.”
For Snook, empathy is a starting point for understanding another’s story and all the conflicts and obstacles it contains.
It’s one thing, however, to talk about empathy and understanding. It’s quite another to live with 26 men in one large room and earn $7.25 an hour doing hard, physical labor.
“I moved into the Star Gospel Mission without knowing where it might lead,” Snook said. “I was clueless and often afraid, depressed and lonely. But that’s the thing about faith -- it requires going in blindly.”
Living day after day in the mission, Snook began to see, hear and understand the stories of his shelter buddies and the conflicts and obstacles they faced. One of those obstacles, he soon realized, was the day-labor market and the way it kept workers from ever getting ahead.
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That, he decided, was an obstacle he could address.
Looking for a better story
In 2010, Snook and his best friend and business partner Peter DeMarco began researching the day-labor industry, especially “alternative staffing organizations” (ASOs), a different type of labor agency that melds a temp staffing approach with supportive services for workers. Soon, they hit the road, traveling to Arizona, Los Angeles and Chicago to observe several innovative ASOs that they had identified as potential models.
In 2011, they launched In Every Story as a nonprofit temporary staffing company with a mission to offer workers a more dignified and rewarding work experience. Most of the 65 ASOs across the country (including the three models that Snook and DeMarco visited) are nonprofits, said Janet Van Liere, the director of the Alternative Staffing Alliance’s community jobs program. The sector, she said, currently serves an estimated 30,000 employees and had $180 million in earned revenue in 2014.
After the launch, In Every Story ramped up quickly; fueled by customer and employee referrals, it was soon growing by 80 percent a year. Even so, the nonprofit status was starting to limit the agency’s work, Snook said. The constant need to raise funds from grants and other sources began to detract from their mission.
In 2014, they reorganized In Every Story as a for-profit limited liability corporation (LLC) that directs a portion of its profits toward employee bonuses, rewarding hard work and worker reliability.
Van Liere said Snook is among a handful of solo entrepreneurs in the last eight years who have entered the field with for-profit companies that they hope to expand to multiple markets.
Today, IES’s office is located on the upper reaches of Meeting Street, near newly renovated historic storefronts that house trendy restaurants and tech startups. A once low-rent part of town, it’s an area undergoing transformation, with new hotels and upscale apartments going up right and left not far from homeless shelters and housing projects.
It’s also an ideal spot for In Every Story. Here men and women show up between 6 and 7 a.m. every weekday to pick up their job assignments and, hopefully, begin to transition to a better life, toward living their best stories. Henry is saving wages to put a roof over his family’s head, and Little Joe (both men declined to give their last names) is “trying to make my way” after 12 years in prison. Like the neighborhood around them, they are in a time of transition, trying to reconstruct a life and move from being the working poor to the sustainably, maybe even fully, employed.
Making the transition
Many at IES have made that transition. The company encourages customers to hire workers who’ve been on a job for 90 days and celebrates each IES worker who gets hired full time. Last year, 40 workers gained full-time jobs through an IES placement.
IES presents the employee with a plaque, places another plaque on an IES office wall and sends a celebratory email notice to 1,500 people and customers, heralding the worker’s success story.
One recently installed plaque and email bulletin depicted a beaming Daniel Scott, who talked about his “sense of accomplishment” when he was hired full time by the O.L. Thompson Construction Company after six months as an IES temp worker. Another featured Theodore Wright, whose new job as an equipment operator at Landmark Construction gave him stability and “means I can take care of myself and my family.”
“These celebrations reinforce the message to our customers that IES workers are valuable assets whom they should consider for full-time employment,” Snook said.
The company gives a similar message to workers in a variety of ways, perhaps none more clearly than the annual employee Christmas harbor cruise and steak dinner. It’s all part of the culture of pride, loyalty and excellence that Snook and his team try to instill.
“We want our employees to feel appreciated and valued,” Snook said.
Although In Every Story is rooted in Snook’s faith life, Christianity is not an obvious component of the company or its work. A prayer request box sits on the front counter, and the staff prays together at weekly staff meetings. But otherwise, religion keeps a low profile at IES.
Snook said that too was a deliberate decision. The goal, he said, is to succeed on business merit alone. If the company promoted itself as a “Christian” business, it could be counterproductive.
“It can strip dignity from our employees to be viewed as another nonprofit social service recipient,” he said.
High hopes for IES
Snook has high hopes for the company and said the market for temporary staffing continues to grow in the post-recession economy. He estimates that as many as 300 new temp agencies are needed across the country and would like for IES to play a role in that expansion.
Jack Hoey, a Charleston business leader and the IES board chairman, said that IES has a sound business model that can enable it to grow.
From the start, he was attracted to Snook’s vision for an organization that helps people make progress rather than profiting from keeping them stuck, unable to move ahead. He also liked that the model was self-sustaining rather than dependent on fundraising or subsidies.
“It conveys that we're trying to solve a problem, not simply subsidize our failure to solve it,” Hoey said. “Derek’s focused, profit-oriented decision making is balanced with trying to see the image of God in each human being he works with, and that’s a powerful way to live and lead.”
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If IES is able to expand (they hope to open a second branch in 2016), it could put pressure on other staffing agencies in the area to adopt a similar approach, Hoey said.
“The impact then broadens from not only improving the economic outlook for direct employees who are hired but to an indirect impact that comes from reshaping the marketplace,” he said.
The company’s approach is clearly a hit with both workers and customers. IES regularly polls both groups with a standard survey tool used throughout the staffing industry and receives satisfaction ratings near the top of the field.
“It basically means they are happier than at the average staffing agency, which is a great sign,” Snook said.
In the end, Snook has stayed true to the vow he made in Kenya.
“I’ve learned that the ultimate reward to pursuing the story written for you is that you grow closer to the author of your story,” he said.
That’s true not just for himself but for everyone connected to IES -- employees, customers and staff.
“We encourage them to engage the story written for them, believing that in doing so they will better understand the author of that story and, in turn, themselves.”