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Employment center goes virtual to help people find real jobs

Sany Kozman moved to Buffalo with his family about three years ago from Egypt. He also brought with him a degree in cardiology from Alexandria University.

After the Covid-19 outbreak, he thought his 30-year background in medicine could be useful. It was.

On Tuesday, he got a job with Catholic Health Systems as a counselor or physician assistant.

"Maybe I can help," Kozman said through a thick accent.

Kozman is one of about 20 people who have found new jobs through the Buffalo Employment and Training Center during the Covid-19 outbreak, said Executive Director Demone Smith. Some had been laid off from their jobs as a result of the health crisis. Some were already out of work, and others – like Kozman, who'd been a Medicare facilitator helping people with disabilities  – were already employed but got a better-paying job or a job they wanted more.

The job placements have occurred since the training center went virtual March 16 and include a mortgage processor, drivers, a nurse case manager, a client support specialist, a switchboard operator, a human resources worker and cashiers, Smith said.

And the numbers have grown since the virtual program started, he said.

The center is also preparing job seekers now – through online training or certificate programs – for future employment after the Covid-19 pandemic subsides.

BETC is a free resource for residents of Buffalo and Erie County seeking jobs and other forms of employment-related assistance like help with résumés, job referrals and workshops focused on interview skills, networking and job search strategies. The center also helps employers find workers.

But when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ordered last month that most employees around the state – with exceptions for "essential" personnel – be sent home to work, BETC turned to a new way of conducting business.

The center – which is no longer open for walk-ins – was turned into a call center for people looking for employment. About seven staffers are working inside the Goodell Street center to answer phones and connect customers with case managers and counselors working from home.  The counselors – who can provide one-on-one counseling sessions – are available from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and can access case management systems, have videoconferencing capability and can do telephone conferences via Zoom. BETC also sends out daily job announcements, Smith said.

The training center was able to "seamlessly transition to a 100% virtual employment resource with minimal disruption" because staff was already exploring virtual conferencing before the Covid-19 crisis hit, Smith said. He had learned about alternative ways of providing career counseling at a conference he had attended.

"We had already done the research, and when (the Covid-19 crisis) hit, we said let's try it," Smith said.

Betty Lee, one of the employment counselors, says more and more people have been reaching out to BETC since it went virtual.

"Normally, if I was inside the office, I might get four, five or six new people a week. The first week (working from home) I got seven people in one day," she said. "And we've been getting a lot more people since then. And that's a good thing because they need to know there is somewhere for them to go because most people think there are no jobs, and nobody's hiring because everything is supposed to be closed."

Buffalo native Dwayne Mellerson had been working low-paying jobs since being released from prison in December 2018 after serving 18 years for assault and burglary. But he wanted a better job.

"I got a few jobs, but I was not happy with those jobs," he said.

Before the Covid-19 outbreak, he attended a trucking school to get his commercial driver's license, he said.

Then he turned to BETC again, which had helped him get a job as a sanitation worker at Rosina Food Products in Cheektowaga. One of the BETC employment counselors working from home helped him land a job last month as a tractor-trailer driver for a Canadian trucking company. He quit his job as a sanitation worker and now hauls loads of sand from Buffalo to Pennsylvania.

"They worked with me," Mellerson said of the BETC counselors. "The Covid outbreak happened, and I got the job I wanted."

Mayor Byron W. Brown said his administration wanted to keep providing as many services as possible as the city prepared its response to the coronavirus. BETC was one of the units that started working remotely quickly.

"I credit Executive Director Demone Smith and the counselors for their commitment to the community," Brown said. "They have been ... very passionate and very dedicated about helping people with their employment needs during this very difficult time."

To seek job help or make an appointment to speak with an employment counselor or case manager, call 856-JOBS or go to buffalony.gov.

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