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Sarasota Thursday, Apr. 9, 2020 3 months ago

COVID-19 presents challenges for Sarasota workers

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From those who lost their job to essential personnel who must work in-person during a public health crisis, coronavirus is taking its toll on local laborers.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

Like many workers in Florida, and in the restaurant industry in particular, Walter Higdon found himself out of a job after new regulations and health guidelines related to COVID-19 went into effect.

Higdon worked as a cook at a Sarasota restaurant that cut staff when it suspended dine-in service by state mandate in mid-March. He also attended Suncoast Technical College, studying heating, ventilation and air conditioning work. That, too, was affected by the coronavirus — classes switched to remote instruction April 1.

With barely any notice, Higdon was forced to come up with a new plan for bringing in money during a public health emergency. He was able to find one thanks to an internship program launched by CareerEdge Funders Collaborative, which is linking technical students nearing the end of their education with companies in fields including HVAC and construction that are still operating and seeking workers.

Companies hiring interns are required to pay at least $13 an hour, with CareerEdge reimbursing $10 per hour of those wages. Although Higdon was already determined to find a career in the HVAC field, the internship came at a valuable time.

“If I wasn’t going to be doing this, I wouldn’t be working,” Higdon said. “I wouldn’t have any income coming in.”

Not everyone is as fortunate as Higdon. More than 500,000 workers across Florida filed unemployment claims between March 15 and April 5, and reports indicated more were unable to submit applications for benefits using the state website. CareerEdge is part of a larger consortium of business organizations in the region trying to link workers looking for a new job to open positions.

The partnership also includes the Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County, the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce and the Manatee Chamber of Commerce. The groups are using an existing website, JobFocus.com, as a platform where companies seeking workers can list positions for residents seeking a new job. Active listings include openings at such stores as Winn-Dixie or Target and assorted positions at assisted and senior living communities.

CareerEdge Executive Vice President Mireya Eavey said the two programs were part of a broader effort to help both workers and employers access available resources and information that might help during an economically uncertain period.

“Every time we see something that can help an employer to help their employees, we’re communicating, and we’re having conversations with them,” Eavey said.

Some of the workers who have retained their jobs are facing their own challenges. Employees at businesses deemed essential don’t necessarily have the luxury of complying with federal guidelines intended to minimize the spread of the disease. At Publix grocery stores, protective shields have gone up at cash registers. At Sarasota Memorial Hospital, policies designed to limit coronavirus exposure are balanced against the need to manage the availability of personal protective equipment.

Employees for both Sarasota County and the city of Sarasota continue to come into the office or go into the field and perform duties that include road work, utilities service, law enforcement and public transit operations. City spokesperson Jason Bartolone estimated the majority of the city’s workers were still reporting to their jobs in-person.

One of those workers is Candie Pedersen, general manager of Parks and Recreation. Although some of her job can be done remotely, parks and landscape maintenance work cannot be. Pedersen said her department has taken some steps to try to ensure safety guidelines are being followed. Workers no longer travel to job sites in the same vehicle, and the city has shifted from construction projects that would place employees in close proximity to one another.

Still, she acknowledged some level of concern among parks staff members. She said the city has made some protective equipment available and reminded workers they can take steps necessary to prioritize their own health while on the job. Pedersen said some city parks remain crowded, and occasionally, well-meaning residents can approach workers without maintaining adequate distance. Pederson said the city is encouraging employees to be firm about spacing requirements, and officials are trying to ensure the public is well educated to keep everybody protected.

“When the public is not [social distancing], that puts our staff at risk, too,” Pederson said. “Some of them are nervous about that. We’re trying to make sure they have all the tools they need to be safe out there.”

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