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Transit Partnership Receives $99,540 Grant to Get LCO Workers to Jack Link's

By Joe Morey

News Editor

A grant from the National Rural Transit Assistance Program in the amount of $99,540 has been awarded to a partnership between Namekagon Transit, the LCO Tribe, Jack Links Inc, Sawyer County Sheriff’s Court Services Division/Huber, and Sawyer County/LCO Economic Development.

The grant, Minong Access Commuter Project, will establish a transportation route from Sawyer County and LCO to Jack Link’s in Minong to provide access to employment for Lac Courte Oreilles tribal members as well as Sawyer County inmates on the work-release program called Huber and former felons who are having difficulty finding employment.

Jack Links is a food manufacturer that distributes products Internationally and has expressed an interest in helping individuals with criminal backgrounds and current Huber inmates to gain employment within the company. Because the population of Minong is so small, the food company must look to all of the surrounding counties for employees. Jack Links currently has openings for 75 employees, and the new transportation service will help fill that need.

A Work Recovery Program was originally presented to the LCO Tribal Governing Board (TGB) by Jeff Crone back in September of 2020 that would provide for transportation to and from work at Jack Link’s in Minong for about a dozen tribal members. Crone said the program would be for young families who are in recovery from addiction and who want to work.

Jesse Gonzalez, Human Resource Manager for Jack Link’s, told the TGB that they are in need of nearly 100 workers after their sales have dramatically increased since the Covid-19 pandemic began. Seventy of these openings are just for the Pack Room in the Minong plant, which is where Crone works as a food safety/quality inspector.

Crone’s plan proposed to utilize tribally-controlled transportation and be open to tribal member clientele who are in recovery and/or incarcerated that want to work as part of their recovery.

“I’d work with recovery staff, probation agents, ICW staff, county workers, etc on behalf of the program participants,” Crone told the TGB in 2020.

Crone said Jack Link’s is hiring at $14.50 to 16.00 hourly starting wage and these jobs also pay at $18.00. He added there is a lot of overtime also available at time and a half.

“These are good paying positions with full benefits,” noted Crone.

LCO Secretary-Treasurer Tweed Shuman, who also serves on the Namekagon Transit Board, said the entire Transit Board was 100% behind the Transit Manager, Karen Melasecca, to seek this grant as the Tribe has a significant workforce.

According to Malesecca, the new transportation route will be established with two leased 10-passenger vans insured by Lac Courte Oreilles Tribe. The vehicles will be driven by volunteer Jack Link employees vetted and trained in defensive driving and passenger assistance by Namekagon Transit. The volunteer drivers, working two shifts, will receive an incentive of $50 per week for the responsibility of driving, riders, and proper care of the vehicles. The driver will pick up employee passengers at designated locations, drive to the Jack Links plant, work the shift, and then return after the shift in reverse order. Another driver will do the same for the second shift. Each van will also have a backup driver with the same credentials to insure uninterrupted service. The vans will be parked when not in use on Lac Courte Oreilles tribal property.

Melasecca also noted the grant serves long-term employment needs in Sawyer County that include benefits such as health insurance, vacation, and sick pay. Many of the employment opportunities in Sawyer County are seasonal, peaking in July and plummeting by October, as noted in the most recent Sawyer County Comprehensive Plan.

Data shows that the LCO Tribe has created more non-seasonal jobs in Sawyer County than any other entity and prides itself in creating additional opportunities for the whole community. Of the Sawyer County prominent public and private employers, 8 out of the top 21 are tribal (38%.) Melasecca notes that the tribal population is only 14% of the total county population.

“This shows an impressive commitment as responsible stewards for the health and well-being of the community. The tribal and county governments share many joint projects including Namekagon Transit, and they are proud of their long track record of collaboration,” Melasecca explained.

The target population for this initiative is Lac Courte Oreilles {LCO) tribal members and Huber work­ release inmates, plus individuals with criminal backgrounds having difficulty finding sustainable employment, although all citizens of Sawyer County could benefit from a ride to a long-term employment opportunity with benefits and will be included if space is available.

Melasecca also states that after this initial seed grant, it is anticipated that the Minong route will be opened as a regular Namekagon Transit route sustained by fares and 5311 grant funds.

“The tribe is anxious to have transportation to Jack Links for employment opportunities for tribal members, thus the tribe will help coordinate the riders from the LCO community,” Melasecca noted.


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