It was after dinner time on Tuesday night at St. Vinny’s Bistro, a cafeteria at Haven for Hope that serves meals to the homeless, and Jose Guajardo had been on his feet serving food for hours. But the 65-year-old wasn’t done yet as he set to work mopping the kitchen floor with energy and a look of hope in his eyes.

When he finally sat down, he choked back tears as he talked about how different his life was just two months ago, before this work brought hope back into his life.

Guajardo is part of a new wave of unemployed workers who are getting paid to work at certain nonprofits through a program that started in Dallas in March called Get Shift Done. The San Antonio expansion of the program started in May and is funded by donations from USAA and United Way, which pays volunteers to work at nonprofits offering food assistance, including the San Antonio Food Bank, food services at Haven for Hope, and Catholic Charities of San Antonio. 

The project is simultaneously aiming to rescue the organizations, who are feeding more people than ever and experiencing a dearth of volunteers, while also providing the unemployed with an income during the coronavirus pandemic that’s thrown more than 40 million Americans out of work.

“I was depressed, so depressed,” Guajardo said. “It got to the point that I wanted to take my life. I’ve never been in this situation before in my life.”

An Army veteran who has worked for various trucking companies for decades, Guajardo had finally started his own business hauling gravel in San Antonio about 16 years ago. But in 2019 business had begun to dry up. 

“It was our worst year ever,” Guajardo said.

When the pandemic hit in March, the quarries he relied on for his product shut down and his business completely collapsed. By May, Guajardo said he had sold all his trucks and equipment, was struggling to pay bills, and was unable to get unemployment or business loans because of debt totaling almost $250,000.

Feeling like he was completely out of options and hope, Guajardo decided he didn’t want to live anymore. 

“I was going to bed hungry, I was about to lose the house,” Guajardo said. “The older you get, the rougher it gets. And when you need help, it seems like there’s nobody to give you help.”

After staying up all night contemplating suicide on May 5, he had the idea to call the San Antonio Food Bank the next morning.

Paul Mata, a case assistance manager with the food bank, answered the phone and immediately sprang into action, offering Guajardo assistance not just with food, but also with resources to help pay his bills. 

“He was so nice,” Guajardo said, tears filling his eyes. “ I just wanted someone to listen to me. And he did. He said ‘Don’t do anything, be careful, take care of yourself, I’ll get you some help.’ He was tremendous.” 

Mata kept in contact with Guajardo to see how else he could help and Guajardo said he needed a job.

“I told him, ‘I’m willing to work. I’m willing to do anything,’” Guajardo said.

Soon he was getting messages from a company called Shiftsmart offering him volunteer work for pay at Haven for Hope. Shiftsmart is the app that Get Shift Done uses to pair workers with the volunteer positions that nonprofits need filled. More than 1,100 people in San Antonio are using the app to find work through Get Shift Done, organizers said.

After taking his first job at the St. Vinny’s Bistro, which is run by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul inside Haven for Hope, Guajardo said he hasn’t missed an opportunity since then to snap up any shift he can as soon as they become available.

“I loved it, and I was working there every day of the week, Saturdays and Sundays, I didn’t care,” Guajardo said. “The Lord was opening a door for me.”

His wife has also started working through Shiftsmart and although the income is not quite enough to catch them up on their bills, they are finally starting to see some light.

“At least it’s something so that I can sleep at night,” he said.

Get Shift Done is the brainchild of Patrick Brandt, president of Shiftsmart, and Anurag Jain, a board member of the North Texas Food Bank. The two Dallas area businessmen saw an opportunity as they watched the pandemic devastate the hospitality industry while the food banks struggled to feed more hungry people with fewer volunteers. 

Initially, the idea was, according to the program’s slogan, to pair people who know food with people who need food. But the program has quickly expanded to include anyone who needs work, and most shifts do not require any previous food service experience, according to Brandt.

The Get Shift Done initiative started as a temporary relief program, Brandt said. “As the crisis escalated and more than 48 million people filed jobless claims, Get Shift Done adapted to be more of a recovery program with a longer time horizon and a wider net,” he said.

Brandyn Moore-Rodriguez of United Way of San Antonio and Bexar County said her organization was able to bring Get Shift Done to San Antonio thanks a donation from the USAA Foundation and a grant from the Covid-19 Community Response Fund, established by the United Way and the San Antonio Area Foundation. Together the donation and grant totaled about $500,000. She said they are actively raising more money to continue funding the program as the crisis drags on and the need grows. 

Nearly  $10 million has been raised across the entire network of cities using Get Shift Done, Brandt said.

“The reason Get Shift Done has been successful scaling to 11 new cities is that we activate the local community,” Brandt said. “… All of the funds raised are for the purpose of providing basic income to the workers who perform volunteer shifts.”

Zoey, whose last name the Rivard Report is withholding because of her personal circumstances, is one of the unemployed food service workers for whom the project has been a lifeline. A server at a local restaurant before the pandemic-related shutdown, she said her job became obsolete when restaurants shifted to takeout. 

“You don’t have anybody coming inside, and either way you’re scared for your own health,” Zoey said. 

She was already living in one of the houses on the Haven for Hope campus when she lost her job, and relying on family members and friends to help her pay bills, when someone told her about Shiftsmart.

“It was a blessing,” Zoey said. “… I’m so grateful for it. It caught me off guard. Because of Shiftsmart now I can pay my own phone bill. It’s good pay, what they’re giving us, so I’ve been able to catch up on a lot of things.”

Pay for most shifts is $13 an hour, and Moore-Rodriguez said workers get paid every two to five days. 

While Shiftsmart workers are grateful for the jobs, San Antonio Food Bank President Eric Cooper is grateful for the help. 

Cooper said that stay-at-home orders in March caused volunteer numbers to drop off drastically at the same time that the need for food aid skyrocketed.

“What we saw at the beginning of the crisis is a lot of corporate volunteers, because of corporate policies, started canceling” their volunteer shifts, he said. “And so our volunteer pool started shrinking at the same time that the need is rising.”

Cooper said the volunteer levels have gradually come back up to about 90 percent of what they used to be, but the food bank is still trying to serve an unprecedented need with fewer volunteers, and that’s where Get Shift Done has helped.

“When you think about San Antonio and our economy, there’s a lot of hospitality workers,” Cooper said. “It’s probably the largest sector of displaced workers. And it’s an opportunity to create this win, win, win. Win for the food bank, win for our client, and then win for that volunteer.”

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Jennifer Norris

Jennifer Norris has been working in journalism since 2005. She's a native Texan, but a new San Antonian who is excited to get to know the city.