By: Lucy Berry Debuty
COVID-19 has devastated the restaurant industry, forcing many eateries to close or shift their operations entirely.
With a stay-at-home order in effect until the end of the month, restaurants are doing what they can to survive. In some cases, that means furloughing or laying off workers until the economy reopens.
But hope is not lost. A unique program by the Land Trust of North Alabama, Downtown Huntsville, Inc. (DHI) and Downtown Charitable Fund means many displaced workers can start earning money again immediately.
The joint program, announced in early April, allows unemployed service industry workers to remove Japanese Honeysuckle plants from the trails on Monte Sano Nature Preserve. The invasive plants have overtaken parts of the mountain, hindering growth of native plants and trees in those areas.
DHI CEO Chad Emerson said turnout was good for the first orientation session this week. They expect more interest from the service industry as people learn about the program and want to help.
“As people see images of the work and get feedback on it and supplemental unemployment benefits begin to wind down, more people will look at this as a way to make a real income,” he said. “It’s $10 an hour for up to 40 hours a week, so it could essentially be almost a full-time job for people who choose to go out there for that long.”
For decades, Asiatic honeysuckle has been running rampant on Monte Sano.
“It was originally an ornamental plant people planted in their yards for the flowers because it’s a very pretty, fragrant plant and the birds absolutely love it,” said Land Trust Executive Director Marie Bostick. “The birds have spread it through the seeds and now it is thriving on the mountain and is taking over about an acre, an acre and a half each year.”
When the plant grows, it shades out the ground so none of the native plants or trees can germinate. As a result, parts of Monte Sano are turning into a forest of Asiatic honey suckle.
Cutting and removing the honeysuckle will ensure the native vegetation can gain foothold again. Simply put, Bostick said it’s a “win-win” for both the Land Trust and workers who’ve lost their income.
“It’s a cool thing because we’re giving people an opportunity to make some money to help them out but at the same time, we’re basically restoring the natural forest in our community,” she said.
To participate, former downtown food, beverage, or retail industry employees must prove they lost their job due to COVID-19 cutbacks, effective April 1, 2020. Individuals who find work at 20 or more hours per week with any employer are not eligible.
Not sure if your workplace was in the downtown district? Click here for a map from DHI.
How restaurants adapt to and recover from the coronavirus outbreak remains to be seen. Until things return to normal, Emerson said former service workers can continue earning a paycheck and paying their bills.
“Furloughed workers get paid, the furloughed workers get to experience and get healthy activity outdoors, and the whole community gets to benefit from their work on the improved trails on Monte Sano Mountain,” he said.