Michael Suguitan / Sun Staff Photographer

The Women's Opportunity Center moved to online-only service in response to social distancing guidelines.

April 13, 2020

Despite Closure, Tompkins Women’s Opportunity Center Offers Online Career Training

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The Women’s Opportunity Center provides career training and employment opportunities for Tompkins County’s most vulnerable women — a role that its employees now must strive to fulfill online.

The center is now offering both virtual and mail-based career services to support displaced women, many of whom are divorced or widowed. But even as the non-profit maintains its free training programs, the center is worried about access to funding.

The New York State Department of Labor primarily finances the organization, which requires the center to aid and employ a certain number of clients each month. But amid coronavirus, the center is no longer seeing as many new clients, according to Ryan Harriott, co-executive director of the Ithaca-based center.

“It’s hard because of the [online] transition,” Harriot said. “Children of our clients are at home and they’re little and they have to focus on them. How can they look for a job right now when they’re in the middle of having a crisis?”

Harriot said she hopes the Department of Labor modifies its grant-awarding process to accommodate the challenges the community is facing during the pandemic.

The Department of Labor also mandates that people who have been on food stamps for an extended period of time are required to complete employment training for 20 to 35 hours each week to continue receiving aid. The center currently serves five women in this position and typically saw five to eight new clients per week before lockdown restrictions began.

The women’s center also relies on funding and training from Mary Durham Boutique, a second-hand clothing store whose profits went directly to the center. But the boutique closed, alongside all non-essential businesses, causing the center to lose a vital source of funding. Displaced women were often given retail and customer service training while working at the boutique.

Although a major revenue source has disappeared, the center is transitioning the training to an online platform.

The center’s staff, which includes part-time career coaches, are also providing career services through the mail for those clients who do not have access to laptops or the Internet. Harriott said the center mails these women interview preparation materials, followed by mock phone interviews. The center is also continuing yoga classes and book clubs virtually.

“We’re helping them still do some job strategies and changing the way that we’re working on mock interviewing. And we’re showing them how to do it remotely, by phone or by Zoom,” Harriott said.

Still, the lack of job opportunities and limited transportation has made the center’s job even more challenging, as unemployment surges in Ithaca and across the country.

“We are required to put so many individuals into placement, help them get placements with employment in the community,” Harriott said. “Most of our clients rely on the TCAT for transportation and because of limited transportation that they’re offering, that’s really impacting people who are seeking work.”

But Harriott sees a silver lining in the situation: The center had been planning to roll out virtual services, and the pandemic pushed them to do so on a vastly accelerated timeline. The center intends to continue using the newly developed online resources, even after the in-person center reopens.

“This virtual platform will be really great at hitting the individuals we have been missing out on,” Harriott said.