MERS works overtime to help unemployed Jews find jobs amidst pandemic

Mark Morgan, who has worked at MERS Missouri Goodwill’s Jewish Community Employment Services since 2008, has seen his caseload increase significantly during the pandemic. 

By Eric Berger, Associate Editor

Terry Jeffers, who has spent much of his life in the hotel and restaurant industry, reached out to MERS Missouri Goodwill’s Jewish Community Employment Services this spring when he realized that he likely wouldn’t be able to return to the job from which he was furloughed: serving in the buffet area at Lumière Place Casino & Hotel in downtown St. Louis.

Jeffers, who is Jewish, saw his chip stack go up and down a number of times between when he was furloughed in late March because of the pandemic to when he found a new job in early September.

All through that ride, he said, the coordinator of the MERS program presented a message “of not only what you need to do but also conveyed confidence in what you are.”

The organization, which receives funding from Jewish Federation of St. Louis and the United Way, offers local Jews free career counseling and assistance with resume writing, job search skills and interviewing strategies.

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During the pandemic, as the unemployment rate in the United States hit nearly 15% in April — it now sits at 7.9% — Mark Morgan, the coordinator of the MERS program, has seen his caseload increase significantly. Before the pandemic, he typically worked with about 25 people at any given time; these days, he works with more than 40, he said.

And Morgan says there are plenty of other people who have stopped looking for work in part because “there are still people who have a lot of fear about being in a work environment, in an office setting where you cannot control your environment” and risk contracting the coronavirus, he said.

The organization, which is located on Hanley Road in Brentwood, has been serving people with various levels of education — from no college degree to doctorates — a majority of them between the ages of 40 and 60, Morgan said.

“Once I explain to them what the program is about, they have a sense of relief because it’s very overwhelming with not understanding how to network, not understanding how to work your LinkedIn account, not necessarily understanding how to format an effective resume,” said Morgan, who belongs to Congregation Shaare Emeth. “It’s not that anybody is not intelligent, but it’s not their world, so I help them to improve things.”

Morgan said he enjoys working with Jews because “you are able to relate to them through your Judaism. You can relate to them through the Jewish holidays or through Shabbat, whether they are observant or not-observant.”

Amidst the significant increase in the number of clients, Morgan said he must work very quickly. People will reach out to him on a Friday and say they have an interview the following Tuesday and need a cover letter and resume by then.

“I have to be responsive…Individuals aren’t acting maliciously, they just don’t understand that it takes some time to build those tools, so I have to work very quickly,” said Morgan, who has been with MERS since 2008.

As the economy shut down to slow the spread of the coronavirus this spring, the federal government provided an additional $600 per week supplement in unemployment benefits from the end of March until the end of July.

“For a while, we were almost kind of living the high life,” said Jeffers, whose wife, a school bus driver, was also furloughed. “We were used to maybe between the two of us having about $1,000 a week coming in after taxes and suddenly we’re catapulted to $1,500, $1,600.”

Jeffers, a father of four children and three step-children, went from 220 to 240 pounds, he said.

“That probably was the worst thing the country could do, was completely close up like that, even though I know COVID is a terrible thing. But it made people like me very lazy,” he said.

Morgan, meanwhile, was “amazed” that more people weren’t contacting the organization, given the economic conditions.

“I knew it was coming but people weren’t reaching out, and it wasn’t until eight, 10, 12 weeks that people really started reaching out,” he said.

Jeffers first contacted MERS about a decade ago, hoping to move into a restaurant management position. During the pandemic, Morgan helped him assemble a resume.

Morgan also advised Jeffers, who had worked in a number of different food and drink establishments, to stay at one job for longer. When Jeffers would put himself down, saying, “I don’t know nothing about computers,” Morgan would respond, ‘Sure you do!’

“He gives you confidence, and he doesn’t abandon you ever,” said Jeffers.

Morgan said his biggest challenge is the news cycle.

“They watch the news a lot and get a lot of the doom and gloom,” Morgan said. “I think that sometimes [affects] their search efforts, but I think the thing is, this is a hard process, and the challenge for me is getting people to buy into the fact that you will get employed, but it’s just a process and you have got to work it hard. It’s nothing against you. It’s nothing against anyone per se, but now instead of there being 25, 30 individuals applying for a position, there might be several more.”

To counteract that potential pessimism, Morgan encourages clients to call him if they are having difficulty filling out an application online, even if it’s 6 p.m. on a Saturday because “I would rather have someone call me and give them 10 minutes of my time.”

“I think it really helps people realize, ‘There is really someone on my side,’ ” Morgan said.

Eventually Morgan referred Jeffers to Three Kings Public House, a restaurant in south St. Louis County, about two miles from Jeffers’ home. Jeffers has now been waiting tables there for two months. He is working with people young enough to be his grandchildren but said he feels like “I have landed on my feet with this job.”

Morgan has also continued to check in even though his work for Jeffers’ is essentially over.

“In a weird way, even though we definitely have a business relationship, we also have a friendship,” Jeffers said.

Morgan said Jeffers’ success in his new job is what keeps him motivated — even during a challenging time such as this.

Morgan explained, “You get a chance to work with individuals when they are in crisis and challenged” and give “back to the community, and it’s great.”