The New Tri-State Defender’s ongoing account of three Memphians -- James Cook (top), William Gandy Jr. and Margaret Cowan -- coping with the coronavirus amid government-directed efforts to slow the virus’ spread.

It has been nearly 14 months since the COVID-19 pandemic severely altered how much of the world’s population, including those in Memphis and Shelby County, shopped, congregated, worshipped, learned, worked, traveled and celebrated special occasions.

Locally, The New Tri-State Defender (TSD) has chronicled since April 2020 how three Memphians – barber William Gandy Jr., nonprofit head Margaret Cowan and entrepreneur James Cook –  have managed their personal and professional lives over the past year.

“… the challenge is finding staff”

James Cook, who owns two eateries – Lenny’s Grill and Subs and Runway 901 Bar & Grill – at Memphis International Airport, is among employers trying to find enough workers to fill vacant positions as the COVID-19 pandemic eases.

Half of U.S. adults now are fully vaccinated against the virus, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and airline passenger traffic has ticked up significantly.

If he could find more employees, Cook could extend the hours of his businesses. He curtailed his operating hours and laid off employees late last spring after COVID-19 slowed passenger air travel to a trickle.

“I want to go back to full-time (operating hours) because the flights are back, but the challenge is finding staff,” Cook said.

To entice workers and reward staff, Cook has hiked “our base pay by $2 an hour – from $9 to $11. It has helped the people here, but, so far, it hasn’t attracted new employees.”

In an email to the TSD Wednesday, Glen Thomas, the airport’s director of Strategic Marketing and Communications/Public Information Officer, said: 

“The TSA (Transportation Security Administration) screened 7,654 passengers and employees this past Friday (May 21), which represented our peak day since the beginning of the pandemic. 

“MEM passenger traffic continues to outpace the national average per TSA checkpoint numbers: Last week, national throughput was down 34.2 percent compared to our 25.3 percent”.

Thomas continued, “In 2019, during the six-day extended Memorial Day holiday weekend (Thursday-Tuesday), TSA screened 50,598 passengers and employees. This year, TSA expects to screen close to 40,000 individuals during the same time period, an approximate 20 percent decrease in throughput. 

“Compared to last year, when we screened only 8,484 during the holiday travel period, throughputs will be up 371 percent this weekend.”

Cook said another reason he decided to boost employee pay was to combat competition.

“Everyone is fighting for staff right now,” Cook said.

Nationwide, employers, along with increasing pay, have resorted to offering new workers signing bonuses.

Some elected officials and private employers are blaming federal enhanced jobless benefits – an additional $300 per week in aid through Sept. 6 – for a reluctance to return to work. Twenty-three states, including Tennessee, have announced an early halt to enhanced jobless benefits.

Cook said anyone interested in employment opportunities at his restaurants can contact him at [email protected] or Lennys.com/careers.

Easing of pandemic creates new opportunities

When the TSD last checked with Margaret Cowan in March, her I Am My Sister’s Keeper nonprofit had just received a $25,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis.

Cowan is founding keeper of the organization, which helps single working mothers increase their earning potential. She said the grant money is for operational expenses that will help the organization increase its profile, efficiency and reach.

According to a foundation spokesperson, the grant for I Am My Sister’s Keeper is “to support organizations that have been supporting those impacted by the pandemic.” Cowan said she has used the grant to update office equipment, pay a communications person and to give herself a small stipend.

With the easing of pandemic restrictions and more people being vaccinated – 353,450 in Memphis/Shelby County have been vaccinated; 269,259 have been fully vaccinated – Cowan has been able to routinely meet in person with her mothers, while still exercising caution.

In April, for instance, Cowan used a Community Lift grant to stage a community fair, featuring other nonprofits and entrepreneurs.

“We had more than 200 people. I was shocked,” she said.

On June 1, Cowan plans to resume her journey toward a four-year degree in sociology at University of Memphis. Last year, she earned an associate’s degree in sociology from Southwest Tennessee Community College.

Keeping his dream alive

The barber business still is in a slump for barber William Gandy Jr. and he expects it stay that way for a while.

Meanwhile, the accomplished musician, singer and songwriter is continuing to work on his music while pursuing financial backing for a movie based on his book “Grandma’s Big Vote.” 

The book tells a story about his 106-year-old grandmother, Mary Alice Gandy, who made national headlines when she voted for the first time in 2008, casting her ballot for Barack Obama.

(Jerome Wright is deputy editor for The New Tri-State Defender. Reach him at [email protected])

LIVING THROUGH COVID-19 — ARCHIVES

Maneuvering through the perils of COVID-19

Living through COVID-19: A trio of profiles – Part II

Living through COVID-19: A trio of profiles – Part III

Living through COVID-19 — Part IV

Living through COVID-19: A trio of profiles – Part V

Living through COVID-19: Part VI

Living through COVID-19: Part VII 

Living through COVID-19, Part VIII

Living through COVID-19, Part IX

Living through COVID-19, Part X

Living through COVID-19, Part XI

Living through COVID-19, Part XII

Living through COVID-19, Part XIII

Living through COVID-19, Part XIV

Living through COVID-19, Part XV

Living through COVID-19, Part XVI

Living through COVID-19, Part XVII