Spotlight Exclusives

Battling COVID-19: A New Deal in Birmingham?

Greg Kaufmann Greg Kaufmann, posted on

As America focuses on structural racism and the killing of unarmed black people, an African American mayor in the south is leading a unique response to a pandemic taking a disproportionate number of black lives. The initiative is a potential model for the nation.

Michael Harrison photo: Lillian Nelson, a college student and delivery driver before the pandemic hit, found work through Birmingham’s effort in a medical transport job and making masks. “It wasn’t like this is just a job, or just a paycheck. We’re doing something that will really benefit people,” she says.

On March 24, the Jefferson County Department of Health ordered businesses in Birmingham, Ala. — the state’s largest city — to close. There were 215 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state and one identified death. Twelve days later, those numbers surged to 1,927 cases and 48 deaths, and all non-essential businesses in the state were closed.

Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin had a vision for a response to the pandemic that he says was “99 percent” inspired by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s creation of the Works Progress Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps, and Tennessee Valley Authority during the Great Depression. These New Deal programs have long been hailed for their compassion and creativity, and for leaving a legacy of art, architecture and crucial capital improvements that contributed to regional economies.

“The vision was to put people back to work, to give people a sense of pride, and actually fill the needs in the community created by the pandemic,” says Woodfin. “We had to offer our own local lifeline. It’s great to have state help, federal help, but sometimes you have to act as if you’re not going to get it.”

On April 14 the City Council approved $1 million to launch the Bham Strong Service Corps for Resilient Workers and hire unemployed and underemployed workers—with a focus particularly on low-income and hourly workers, Woodfin says—for projects that respond to the COVID-19 crisis.

The initiative is part of the #BhamStrong public-private partnership which has also helped small businesses through an emergency loan fund and technical assistance to navigate federal aid programs.

Given that 71 percent of jobs in the Birmingham Metro area are based on consumers leaving their homes to spend money—including in restaurants and many small businesses—it’s no surprise that more than 800 people quickly applied to the Service Corps. The only eligibility requirement is that an individual be at least 18 years old and a resident of the city. More than 250 applicants were placed in positions, and Woodfin says that finding jobs for the remaining people is more a “logistical challenge than a financial one.”

He likens the Service Corps effort to building an airplane while flying it: “We’ve done most of the building now, but we’re still flying at the same time. You just roll with it,” he says.

True to Woodfin’s original vision of emerging community needs dictating the work of the Service Corps, some of the jobs filled so far include: staffing a call center that provides COVID-19 screening for residents of 14 public housing locations; distribution of school supplies and meals for Birmingham City Schools students, and preparation of materials for teachers; and medical transport of symptomatic patients to and from treatment. A recent Service Corps newsletter also included opportunities for park and trail maintenance and conducting and transcribing phone interviews with residents about how the pandemic has affected their lives. Service Corps jobs range in pay from $16-$22 an hour, and although the City isn’t able to provide benefits at this early stage, it hopes to be able to do so in the future.

Josh Vasa was general manager of a restaurant until the pandemic shut it down. Birmingham’s Service Corps put him back to work as a project manager helping local businesses follow safety protocols.

Suzanna Fritzberg, executive director of #BhamStrong, is struck by the applicants’ diverse professional backgrounds. “Landscape architects, reporters, people who had worked in client services, retail workers, grant writers, food service workers,” she says. “The brunt of the [economic] impact is on the lower-wage workforce, but we’re really seeing this trickle up, especially if you look at indicators like new job postings, which are down in Birmingham about 48 percent—slightly more than nationally.”

Prior to the pandemic, Josh Vasa, 39, was general manager of Carrigan’s Public House, a restaurant and bar in the city. He had transitioned to the private sector last fall after a 15-year career in nonprofits, including as the director of the city’s renowned Sidewalk Film Festival. Having majored in business at Birmingham Southern College, he enjoyed his new job and “learning the ins and outs of a small to mid-sized business.”

“Life was good, business was great,” he says. “And then the pandemic came about. In a matter of weeks, I went from being fully employed to being unemployed.”

Vasa is married and has a 13-year-old daughter. He says that unemployment insurance has helped them make ends meet, but he had “real anxiety” about if and when the service industry would recover. He applied to the Service Corps in mid-April and heard back in early May—there was a need for a project manager to help local businesses adhere to safety protocols as the city reopens.

“The psychology of just having someone reach out and say, hey, times are tough, we have this position, would you want to help? It was really great,” he says.

At the end of last month Vasa was promoted to a full-time position helping to manage current projects and build pilot projects, as well as organize training sessions.

Lillian Nelson also received a much-needed morale and financial boost from the Service Corps. Nelson is a senior psychology major at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). She worked part-time for Shipt delivery service while attending school full-time. She says when the university shut down its campus and transitioned to online learning she was “down in the dumps because there was so much change, and I felt isolated, and I needed money.” Her family still resides in her hometown of Mobile, but because her grandmother lives with her mother, Nelson decided it would be safer for the family if she didn’t visit home.

Initially, the grocery delivery service was “booming” due to Coronavirus. “But then it dipped off because people are like, ‘OK, I can only go to the grocery store, so guess what, I’m going to the grocery store.’”

Nelson learned about Service Corps on Instagram, applied, and heard back “within a day.” She trained for a medical transport position and also makes masks. The transportation job pays $22 an hour and the mask-making $18. She works for the Service Corps 3 days per week and for Shipt 2 days per week.

“It was so refreshing,” she says. “It wasn’t like this is just a job, or just a paycheck. We’re doing something that will really benefit people who can’t or don’t have access to help themselves at this moment. So I’m able to pay my rent and afford groceries—but also in this moment of being so isolated, being able to help my community helps me too.”

One concern that city officials share about the pandemic is the degree to which people who are most economically vulnerable are forced to work on the frontlines as wealthier and mostly white populations are able to shelter in place.

“The crisis has had a disproportionate impact on communities of color, particularly black communities—both for reasons health-related and because our political and economic system has set especially Black Americans up for precarity,” says Fritzberg. “So we are very concerned about that, and it’s something that the mayor has been a leader in talking about in terms of having data to understand what the impact has been here. At every step we’re concerned about our workers being as safe as possible.”

For the medical transportation work, that meant collaborating with the Jefferson County Department of Health and a local custom engineering firm to design a pod that creates a fully sealed barrier between a sedan driver and passenger and training the drivers in cleaning and disinfecting protocols that are used between rides. Nelson said she is confident in the technology and the training.

“It’s really sealed,” she says. “Like it is its own bubble in my car. And I know how to clean it. The training was transparent and really well put together.” Fritzberg notes that the transportation program is very diverse in terms of age and race, and includes a recent graduate of a physician’s assistant program at UAB, a COVID-19 survivor who wants to serve the community, a mother of 6 who isn’t eligible for unemployment compensation, and an individual who had lived and worked in China but had been unemployed for the past year.

“I think we have a similar level of diversity across a lot of our program areas,” says Fritzberg.

While the Service Corps is designed to address immediate needs created by the pandemic, there is also a vison of how it can serve the city’s long-term economic development.

“How do we think about designing this program in a way that provides skills-trainings opportunities, helps advance people’s careers, and has an eye towards really inclusive economic growth and development in the long-term?” she says. “We’re thinking about that as the second phase of the program—when we transition from addressing immediate needs to developing local talent.”

One proposal is to train workers as community health outreach specialists—to create a kind of Reserve Corps in the event the city need’s additional contact tracing capacity. But these workers could also help meet ongoing needs in the community related to things like hypertension or diabetes management, both of which contribute to worse health outcomes, including with regard to COVID-19. Given the existing UAB Medical hospital system, Fritzberg says community health work can offer long-term career opportunities.

The efforts of the Woodfin administration are beginning to get noticed outside of Birmingham. The Southern Economic Advancement Project (SEAP, which supported reporting for this article) has been tracking Southern responses to the pandemic. “Birmingham’s collaborations across sectors, communications platforms, and innovative programs really captured our attention,” says SEAP research director Sarah Beth Gehl. “It’s great to see local responses to a global problem—and to racial and economic inequities—based on ingenuity, collaboration, and most importantly, community.”

Yet if you asked Americans where a New Deal-like response to the pandemic might originate, relatively few would likely say Alabama. That fact isn’t lost on Service Corps members or city officials.

“I like to remind people that Birmingham is a blueberry in tomato soup,” says Woodfin. “Birmingham has a long history of reliance on what we will call micro-communities and neighborhoods to survive and grow. And we’re fighting the pandemic by capitalizing on our city’s strong sense and respect for our community.”

As for Nelson, she sees this response as almost a watershed moment, and that Birmingham is a “blossoming city.”

“The history of this country and the south—we don’t have the best reputation for giving a hoot about particular demographics,” she says. “So the City wanting to make sure we’re providing for the community and are there for lower-income communities—that’s just beautiful.”

Funding from the Southern Economic Advancement Project supported reporting for this article.

Greg Kaufmann is a journalist covering poverty in America and a contributing writer at The Nation. 

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