TBBJ: Wheels of Success Helps Workers Stay on the Road

Employers rest easy knowing employees will make it to work

Gail Smyth, principal and broker at Orange Street Lending, was faced with a tough situation when a valued employee lost her car and didn’t have a way to get to work.

The worker lives in New Port Richey and had to get her three children to three different schools before coming to her job in Tarpon Springs, so taking the bus was out. The problem was resolved after Smyth found Wheels of Success, which provides a range of transportation solutions, including supplying donated cars to the working poor and helping with car repairs.

“We told them she was a great employee and we didn’t want to lose her because she couldn’t get to work but we needed someone who could be here,” Smyth said. After Wheels gave a donated car to the worker, “she’s never been late for work.”

Whatever it takes

Susan Jacobs, executive director of Wheels of Success, founded the Tampa nonprofit in 2003, drawing on experiences at a staffing company she ran previously that specialized in hospitality and low-level clerical placements.

“We could find people jobs, but many times they couldn’t get to work,” Jacobs said.

She wanted to help workers who did not qualify for existing government services.

“I wanted to take the concept and apply it to people who are working but fall through the cracks because they make too much money, which really is not much money at all,” Jacobs said.

Income is a key criterion for the Wheels program. Jacobs said it’s essential that someone who receives a car make enough money to maintain it.

That concern came into play at Kanabay Court Reporters in St. Petersburg, where a young woman who is a single mother of two needed a car to get to work and to perform “runner” duties during the day, such as delivering transcripts and supplies. The company gave the woman a raise to ensure she could get a place on Wheel’s list.

“By this time, not having (the woman) on our team was unthinkable,” said Donna Kanabay, president. “We’d invested a great deal of time and money in her training. … Having a vehicle was not negotiable, so we were willing to do whatever it took to make sure it happened.”

Moving up the ladder

Worker transportation also is an issue at Caspers Co., the owner of McDonald’s (NYSE: MCD) restaurants throughout Florida, said Allison Adams, partner.

Caspers gives bus passes to crew members who need them, a strategy that works because there are so many stores that there is usually one close to the worker’s home. It won’t work if a crew member is promoted to management and asked to move to another store. Wheels has provided cars for 10 hourly managers.

“They are much more reliable if they have reliable transportation,” Adams said. “It makes them more productive, and it gives them an opportunity to work at another restaurant with higher volumes.”

Adams said Caspers has to provide proof that an employee is qualified for the program. Employees go online at Wheels’ Web site to fill out an application.

Six of the 10 Caspers managers who received cars have since received further promotions, Jacobs said.

Affording the commute

Wheels also works with people who cannot afford insurance or the tags and title, or who get behind on their car payments, in order to help them keep their cars. The organization also provides assistance with auto repairs, preventative maintenance and car-care classes.

For the most part, Wheels serves a different group of people than does Bay Area Commuter Services, which helps establish car pools and van pools and promotes the services of area transit agencies. BACS, one of the Florida Department of Transportation’s nine commuter assistance programs, focuses on reducing congestion on area highways, said Sandi Moody, executive director.

Public interest has been growing as the price of gas inches towards $3 a gallon, and employers are calling BACS more often, concerned they will lose good workers.

“If you are not able to afford your commute, you will go somewhere else to work,” Moody said. “That’s why more employers now are asking for our services.”

Wheels of Success

ADDRESS: P.O. Box 340975, Tampa 33694
PHONE: 813.417.1090
WEB: wheelsofsuccess.org

Bay Area Commuter Services

ADDRESS: 1408 N. West Shore Blvd., Suite 704, Tampa 33607
PHONE: 813.282.8200
WEB: TampaBayRideshare.org

Michael Hinman | Tampa Bay Business Journal