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Unemployed in New Orleans find careers in community health

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Service workers in New Orleans who were laid off because of the coronavirus’s impact on the economy are earning a living again by helping others survive during the pandemic.

Unemployed bartenders, musicians and casino employees who were among the thousands of service industry workers left without jobs when the city closed its bars and nightclubs in late March have been recruited to train and work with Resilience Force. The national nonprofit puts people to work in disaster recovery programs that focus on Black and other minority communities.

As a member of the New Orleans Resilience Corps pilot program, former French Quarter bar manager Dazmine “Daz” Allen spends his days handing out COVID-safety flyers and personal protective equipment to residents and Hurricane Laura evacuees sheltering in the city.

Allen said he filed for unemployment and food stamps and was “barely getting by” when he was recruited.

“I feel like I can provide for myself, help my family … and working for an organization that has the primary goal to provide health care, health services to the community, to me is everything right now,” Allen said.

Because of the pandemic, the New Orleans Corps is focusing heavily on community health, said Resilience Force's executive director, Saket Soni. Instead of clearing flood damage or swinging hammers to rebuild homes, workers are canvassing churches and neighborhoods to educate people about how to stay safe during the pandemic, Soni said. Among their duties is distributing personal protective equipment to especially vulnerable members of the community and informing people about where to get free COVID testing or seek emergency care.

The goal, he said, is to improve community health during the pandemic, especially in marginalized communities, while also addressing the national unemployment crisis, which he said is “on steroids” in tourism-heavy cities like New Orleans.

“Many people in New Orleans live paycheck to paycheck,” said Rosella Ampuero, who was laid off from a hotel staffing company after visitor travel to the city declined sharply because of the pandemic.

Ampuero and Allen are among the first nine workers in the pilot program, Soni said. He said there are pans to add dozens more in the months to come.

Workers start out at $12 an hour for training and work, with the potential to make more.

On a recent training day, Ampuero took notes as Hurricane Laura evacuees talked to her about the difficulties of sheltering for weeks in a hotel, some with young children, many needing clothes, not realizing they’d still be living elsewhere a month after the storm. Some are also without transportation after they were brought to the hotel on evacuation buses.

Born in Peru, Ampuero says she’s looking forward to using her bilingual skills to communicate important health information to the Spanish-speaking community, where some residents don't speak English and are having a hard time getting up-to-date information and resources.

“I wanted to help them, and that’s what pushed me to jump into this opportunity,” she said. “I felt like it was my responsibility just as a human being.”

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