The Victoria-based charity Our Place quietly closed its employment program, Our WorkPlace, on June 21, laying off four staff and ending nearly six years of support for those looking to re-enter the workforce.
Our Place provides services to vulnerable groups in Greater Victoria, including those struggling with homelessness and addiction. The former manager of Our WorkPlace, Ashley MacDonald, says the program was a unique, barrier-free resource for people to find help pursuing employment — including many who had been out of the workforce for some time.
“People were getting work, going back to school, going to treatment,” she said. “People would make some really serious, big life changes that are scary for anyone, and we were able to be there and champion people along doing that.”
Now, MacDonald says, there is a gap in those services for the region, which could prove significant as many job openings require skilled applicants.
A recent labour market outlook from the province shows that eight out of every 10 new job openings in the next decade will require post-secondary education or skills training.
Jordan Cooper, Director of Services at Our Place, says the charity struggled to fund the program throughout the years it ran, relying on donor and grant funding. He says the lack of funding was pivotal when Our Place made the “difficult decision” to end the program.
“Ultimately, there was one factor and it’s funding,” he said.
Our Place communications director Grant McKenzie said grant money funding the program had run out at the end of March, leading to the lay-offs.
The program’s former manager says Our WorkPlace helped about 100 people a week, including many that had been out of the workforce for some time.
According to Our Place, in 2022, the program provided skills training to 170 clients and 80 clients successfully found work.
MacDonald says the closure was sudden — she and her colleagues were laid off in a meeting on June 21 and supervised as they packed their belongings. To her, the process felt “punitive.”
“We all did incredible work, and we have the numbers and the stories to prove it, but we weren’t even offered a reference,” she says.
McKenzie denied the claim that staff were not offered references and reiterated the challenges facing the program leading to the layoffs.
MacDonald is concerned about the clients left without support after the program ended.
Even a week more of services, she says, would have allowed her team to give people back their personal documents and provide closure.
A gap in services
Cooper recognized the significance Our WorkPlace had to community members and says Our Place is having ongoing discussions about how to provide employment services in a way that is sustainable.
“I see it as a gap,” he said. “[Community members] were accessing employment services, but they were also accessing community and support.”
Although the loss of Our WorkPlace was upsetting for MacDonald, she says it has motivated her to consider creating her own non-profit to provide low-barrier employment programs. In Greater Victoria, she observed a high demand for these services alongside other resources available to people struggling with homelessness.
“We were an important piece of that continuum and unfortunately that’s not there anymore,” she said.