For 6 years, Rusty LuQuire, 58, worked at a Birmingham, Alabama, Macy’s store selling furniture. He enjoyed his job and says his sales were pretty good – good enough to avoid a round of layoffs at the stores earlier this year. But in March, the company began furloughing employees due to COVID-19, including LuQuire, who was just returning from his honeymoon.
While sitting at home and watching TV, he saw a press conference with Birmingham’s Mayor Randall Woodfin and other city leaders who were introducing an initiative called BHAM Strong (or Birmingham Strong) a public-private partnership designed to help Birmingham residents recuperate from the impact of COVID-19.
In addition to providing grants to small businesses, Woodfin and city officials said they would be hiring people laid off due to COVID-19 and getting them back to work on service-oriented projects through a program called the Birmingham Service Corps. LuQuire’s ears perked up.
“I had a feeling like that’s me, they’re directly speaking to me,” he says. He sent his resume in on BHAM Strong’s website, applied to a few of the jobs, which BHAM Strong tells applicants about in weekly e-mail newsletters, and went through a few interviews.
About a week after losing his job at Macy’s, he accepted a part-time position for around 20 hours a week. His new position involved calling public housing residents on behalf of the city to provide critical information on the pandemic: where and how to get tested, and how to spot symptoms of COVID-19.
Birmingham Service Corps has hired about 350 people since it began in April, according to Suzanna Fritzberg, Executive Director of BHAM Strong. Despite city funding and support, BHAM Strong operates as an independent 501(c)(3) non-profit. The org launched in Mid-March, and the service corps was launched in April.
The Birmingham Service Corps is funded with $1 million of Birmingham city dollars, which will be reimbursable through the federal CARES Act, and another $500,000 in corporate donations. In addition to employing people directly, as was the case with LuQuire’s phone banking assignments, the initiative pays people to work at non-profits and other organizations engaged in public service. The Corps has a standard 8-week placement period, Fritzberg says, although the length can vary. After their placement, corps members can apply for other service jobs. In some cases, people have been hired directly by the outside organizations at the end of their placement.
People in need of work have found the program from a wide range of professions, Fritzberg says. Service Corps members have included students, food service workers, retail workers, pre-school teachers and journalists. The average age of those who have signed up is 32, although there is no age limit. According BHAM Strong, 65 percent of those who have been placed in jobs are Black, 4 percent are non-Black people of color and 31 percent are white.
Applicants don’t need to have lost jobs or income due to Covid-19 to participate, although the vast majority fit this description. Fritzberg says the vast majority of the money people earn through the Corps has gone to rent, food and child expenses.
She says an important goal of the program is to address the economic crisis and the pandemic at once.
“The city and community were recognizing that Birmingham community members had needs that weren’t being otherwise filled,” she says. That included massively increased need for food banks, setting up testing clinics, and free lunches for public school students who were now at home. Non-profits needed extra hands to staff those food banks and testing clinics, and people needed jobs; all that was missing was to connect them and pay them a fair wage.
Rusty LuQuire, left, with Birmingham mayor Randall Woodfin (photo by Keisha LuQuire)
LuQuire says his job calling public housing residents gave him a sense of fulfillment. People were often pleasantly surprised to hear from him.
“It just hit me, so many of us go on without acknowledging anyone and without getting acknowledged,” he says. The experience jolted him out of the isolation he was feeling due to the pandemic and reminded him that he was not going through it alone, he says.
After two weeks phone-banking for public housing residents, he was assigned to call small business owners to give them information on the city’s guidelines and pandemic aid. When that assignment ended, he worked at the Birmingham Zoo, a Service Corps assignment he sought out and accepted out of curiosity. He enjoyed that job too, even though he had no zoo experience, but eventually was hired back at Macy’s when his furlough ended.
Non-profits that bring in workers through the Birmingham Service Corps were found through outreach, says Ken King, director of community engagement at BHAM Strong. They include the Dannon Project, which works with formerly incarcerated people returning to society, as well as the Birmingham chapter of the Urban League, which provides education and workforce development, and Alabama Regional Medical Services, a health clinic that works with homeless and low-income people.
BHAM Strong also alerts applicants about private job opportunities outside of the Service Corps. “What we’re able to provide is frankly short-term, by program design and given the resources we have, so the more we can do to support people bridging into long-term opportunities we absolutely are committed to,” Fritzberg says.
Lisa Ball, director of human resources at Pack Health, a healthcare startup that provides support for people with chronic illness, says the organization received about 20 applications from Birmingham residents who were alerted to job opportunities through BHAM Strong. Ball says two of those applications led to direct hires. “We have been, and continue to be, impressed with the applicants that we are seeing apply,” she says.
Fritzberg says job satisfaction is a goal of the Birmingham Service Corps and part of BHAM Strong’s approach to seeding a long-term economic recovery.
“Part of our work has been targeted to not only what a job looks like for our members, but what a good job looks like,” Fritzberg says.,. She says that includes a living wage and good team relationships, something they try to cultivate in service corps members.
Some of the people who have worked for the Service Corps went on to become long-term hires, including one person who was hired full-time by the Birmingham Zoo. Other folks have stayed on at a sliding scale, with the organization paying part of the person’s wages and BHAM Strong providing the other part.
“We’re always excited when we see non-profits extending a placement,” Fritzberg says.
One person who moved on to a full-time opportunity is King, who before being hired as as BHAM Strong’s director of community engagement, started out as a Service Corps member in April.
King, 50, had previously worked at Mayor Woodfin’s office as director of external affairs and was transitioning to a new job when the pandemic hit. When that job was eliminated, he faced a significant loss of income and applied to be a Service Corps member, where he drove a shuttle taking people to get tested for Covid-19. That’s where he met Fritzberg, who brought him on full-time at BHAM Strong.
“I was one of the ones fortunate enough to take my experience and be fitted with an organization that was really doing good work, “ King says. “so it was a natural fit for me”.
Fritzberg and King note that there are challenges with the young program. BHAM Strong has only existed since March, which means it is essentially a startup that has hired hundreds of people in 5 months. And Fritzberg also says that Alabama’s inability to enact public safety measures for the coronavirus have been a challenge. Birmingham’s facemask ordinance has been in place since May, for example, while Alabama Governor Kay Ivey didn’t issue a statewide order until July 15. Funding is also uncertain: it’s unclear if additional CARES Act funds will arrive to continue supporting the program.
And outreach for the program has been challenging in a pandemic, King says. “The days of being able to visit congregations or go to neighborhood meetings, those things have changed to say the least,” he says
Fritzberg says about a thousand people have applied to the Service Corps. Of those, about half are regularly applying to opportunities sent via BHAM Strong’s e-mail blasts. She expects more people to sign up once federal unemployment insurance supplement provided through the CARES Act elapses.
For many people, an extra $600 in unemployment amounts to more than they could get paid through the Birmingham Service Corps. And some members of Congress have argued that unemployment insurance that exceeds a person’s wages are a disincentive to work. LuQuire disagrees.
“It made me see firsthand what you hear a lot of the politicians say in the last few weeks, we don’t have to pay the benefits, it’s going to encourage people to stay home,” he says. “It gives me pause because I find myself saying I don’t think so. I think you’re wrong. I’m pretty sure the majority of them would really like to be out there working and doing something.”
LuQuire says while he does feel the pain of having left money on the table, he doesn’t regret working in the Service Corps, despite criticism from his friends and family.
“There were a couple people who said you should have sat tight,” he says. “But I’m very glad that I did it.” LuQuire says other zoo employees were happy for him when he got hired back at Macy’s and that the program had served its purpose – helping people close gaps in their income due to Covid. LuQuire says while he’s back at his old job, which he enjoys, he’s better for the experience of working in the Service Corps.
“I’m not geared to sit passively and not do much. I have a personality, I need to be engaging with people,” he says. “I need to be in a mode where I’m helping people.”
Roshan Abraham is Next City's housing correspondent and a former Equitable Cities fellow. He is based in Queens. Follow him on Twitter at @roshantone.