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Philly organizations complain after nonprofit fumbles paying teen workers

WorkReady has struggled this summer with ontime paychecks to teens the nonprofit has vowed to support.

Jaeden King, outside his home this week, worked this summer under the Work Ready program within Philadelphia Youth Network. He and other teens were paid weeks or a month late.
Jaeden King, outside his home this week, worked this summer under the Work Ready program within Philadelphia Youth Network. He and other teens were paid weeks or a month late.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

With his first paycheck from his first job, Jaeden King wanted to take his mother out to dinner. He was told he would be paid every two weeks after he started at Fab Youth Philly as a play captain.

That first check didn’t arrive until a month after he’d started the job.

“I was so excited to work,” the 15-year old said. “I had my whole other two weeks planned out. OK, this is the money I’m going to spend to get to work. This is the money I’m going to spend to buy the stuff that I like. This is the money I’m going to save.”

King is one of many Philadelphia teens who have had their first work experience turn sour as the program that funds their summer work, WorkReady, has struggled to pay youths they’ve vowed to support.

“I don’t know any adults who would come back to work after not getting paid their first two weeks on the job,” said Rebecca Fabiano, executive director of Fab Youth Philly. It’s essential that teens get paid on time, she said.

“This is their very first job experience for most young people. And we are inadvertently teaching them that we don’t care about them.”

Hers was one of the half-dozen organizations that voiced concerns in an Aug. 15 letter to the Philadelphia Youth Network (PYN), which operates WorkReady. The organizations expressed their frustration about many of their young workers having to wait weeks to a month to be paid for this summer’s work.

Farrah Farnese Roma, vice president of programs for PYN, said in an interview that incomplete paperwork from the teens and groups as well as miscommunications between PYN and providers was the cause of much of the delays. All teen workers registered in its computer system have been paid, she said.

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“To date as of our most recent payday of [Aug. 12], nearly 6,000 young people have received payment and we’ve distributed over $5 million in payments across the city through our program,” she said.

Janine Spruill, founder and executive director of Lil’ Filmmakers, had a different accounting:

“More than 52% of my kids did not get paid,” she said.

Pay problems before the pandemic

Philadelphia Youth Network seeks to to eradicate poverty and help young people find work. The WorkReady program provides funding for around 80 organizations throughout Philadelphia. According to PYN’s 2021 annual report, more than 6,600 teens participated in the WorkReady summer programs. This year’s numbers have not been released.

Fabiano said she understands that the last three years have been challenging for many organizations, but the pay issues with WorkReady program have been around for longer than the pandemic.

“It is unfortunately kind of an open secret among providers,” she said.

Fabiano also noted that neither she nor the organizations that spoke up want to blame PYN. They understand it is trying to do right by the teens it serves throughout the Philadelphia region, but the issues have lasting impacts on young workers and their ability to trust the systems.

Spruill said that her teens often spend $5 a day using public transportation to get to their offices on Lancaster Avenue. That adds up to about $150 for the six-week program. When kids don’t get paid on time, she said, she has had to give teens rides and her program has had to buy food to make sure they were eating lunch.

Spruill said she has been dealing with payment issues for her teens for several years. They now have their teen workers turn in completed paperwork by mid-June, knowing the six-week program starts after July 4.

“We didn’t want to have any hiccups as far as the kids getting paid, because we experienced this like every year,” said Spruill, who founded the nonprofit in 2009. Still, more than half of her teens didn’t receive money on time or experienced issues with checks.

Zaniyah Byard worked with Lil’ Filmmakers this summer. PYN offered a $500 bonus to any teen who filled out the paperwork early, and she did that.

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The 17-year-old was excited to start saving money for college. She also held a part-time job at Burlington Coat Factory for that reason. Still, she did not get a check for her summer work until after her six-week program ended.

“It was very frustrating because I was really excited to be able to start saving,” the North Philadelphia teen said.

Spruill and Fabiano noted that PYN and the WorkReady program are essentially the only places providing large-scale workforce development funding for teen workers. And they understand the will to help out Black and brown teens who may be struggling financially or be surrounded by violence.

Plans frustrated

King’s job at Fab Youth Philly was his first. He started work at Play Captain Initiative — a program that sends teens out to PlayStreets, which provides safe spaces for kids to receive meals and play over the summer — on July 5. According to a payment schedule, the pay period ended July 10. Checks would be dated July 15 and sent out.

King didn’t receive his first paycheck until Aug. 1.

“I needed to buy stuff with that check,” said King, of Northeast Philadelphia. “And when that didn’t happen, I had to rely on my mom.”

Sheila De La Cruz also started work with Play Captain on July 5, but didn’t get paid until Aug. 13, after the program ended.

De La Cruz had looked forward to using the money to buy a new phone. Those plans never came to fruition for the 17-year-old.

“I did want to use my money, " the North Philadelphia teen said, “and it was frustrating that they weren’t paying me at the time they said they were.”

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