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An Expert’s Take on Using Subsidized Jobs to Meet Health, Employment Goals in Pandemic

Faced with the COVID-19 health and employment crisis in spring 2020, the city of Baltimore launched an innovative subsidized employment project, the Baltimore Health Corps, to connect unemployed residents with critical health care jobs in contact tracing and other health roles. Operated almost entirely virtually, the program now employs nearly 300 residents in community health jobs.

Funded both through city and a wide range of private funds, the program is a collaboration between several city departments and local nonprofits. (See our new paper for how federal policymakers can use subsidized employment to advance an equitable recovery nationwide.)

I spoke with MacKenzie Garvin, the program’s manager and Chief of Staff at the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development, to learn more about subsidized employment in Baltimore. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What was the motivation behind the Baltimore Health Corps program? Why choose subsidized employment during the pandemic?

This is not a normal crisis, in the sense that there were two issues that needed to be solved immediately: the health crisis, and that so many people were becoming unemployed so quickly. This is like the 2.0 version of the New Deal, and what is needed right now in terms of government work is contact tracing. So it makes sense — there were not enough people to do the work, and there were so many people out of work. It aligns, that we could work to resolve the two issues — health and unemployment — at the same time. It made sense for the solution to be subsidized employment.

How have you incorporated an equity focus into the program?

At the beginning, we didn’t know how many résumés we were going to get. But we were sure that we wanted every person to have access to these jobs. This is the type of job where you can get on-the-job training. So if you understand Baltimore and have good customer service skills, we felt like that — and not having a high level of education — was the most important element to the job. When we created hiring rubrics, we were intentional about not placing a high score on irrelevant things. If you loved Baltimore and had worked anywhere helping people, whether in your community, as a volunteer, or in retail, you were able to do this work.

What are the program’s goals for the participants?

Our goal is to get everyone placed into permanent employment, that’s the key. We also would like to have a high percentage of people participating in workforce supports, which are not required [for program participation] but are still available. We have had almost 200 people participate in career navigation services since the program started, about 150 getting legal services, and almost 100 receiving behavioral health care services.

What are you doing to connect Health Corps staff with permanent unsubsidized employment?

Every Health Corps staff member is connected to a career navigator and can participate in group goal achievement sessions that meet every other week. If someone is interested in education, if they’re interested in training, in any type of work, the process helps to figure out what kind of support they might need to reach that goal. In addition, the career navigators hold office hours for one-on-one counseling or assistance. And each group is assigned a business service representative, who reviews résumés and will meet with staff in group sessions to talk through available positions and what to apply for as their temporary positions come to an end.