ST. PETERSBURG — Claudia Hendershot spent nine years working for IBM, got laid off and made a career change into real estate appraising. Then real estate went bust.
Which explains why she eagerly applied on Friday for a minimum-wage job that sounds more like a volunteer gig: Salvation Army bell ringer.
She was among 325 people — including professionals, laid-off construction workers and former retail employees — who came to the Salvation Army's headquarters seeking a $7.25-an-hour job that the organization once had trouble filling. About 200 to 250 will be hired.
Many in the crowd said they didn't even know until recently that the Salvation Army hires people to ring bells beside the familiar kettles that are seen around stores at Christmastime, raising money for the needy.
And many did not know that the Salvation Army in South Pinellas analyzes each bell ringer in a complex tracking system that rewards top "producers" with prime locations and tends to winnow away those who don't raise as much cash.
What they do know is this: In a brutal economy, they need to find work. And these days, even minimum wage sounds good.
For Hendershot, 47, who lives in Pinellas Park with her mother, niece and great-nephew, getting a bell-ringing job would mean "I'll have a little money to buy something for Christmas because right now there is no cash."
Because of the economy, there's a fine line between which side of the kettle people stand on. Many in the crowd were once used to a good, stable living and now have gotten used to food stamps and unanswered applications.
Bell ringing could put food on their own tables.
"Any job is a good job right now," said Keith DeLaney, 46, of St. Petersburg, who was wearing work boots even though it has been a year since he got laid off as a bridge builder. "I like any job — shovels, rakes, it don't matter."
Johnny Henderson, 49, said he got laid off after 17 years of working on a drill truck on big construction projects. He has applied for other construction jobs, for cooking jobs, for jobs at every temp agency he could find. "It's bad when a temp service is not hiring," he said.
Although volunteer bell ringers are still an important part of the Salvation Army, many districts around the country use paid bell ringers, and they view this as a twofold blessing. First, the seasonal jobs help people. Second, paid workers allow the group to raise more money so that it can do more of its work with homeless people, prisoners, needy children and its ministry.
But in South Pinellas, the organization's Maj. Ron Gorton goes a step further than most, creating daily evaluations of kettle locations and bell ringers, along with financial data that probably could be studied in an MBA class.
Using past years' data, he calculates the expected take at each kettle location. Each time a bell ringer works, kettle income is recorded and compared with the expected take. People who collect more than expected are ranked highly. People who collect less than expected get a lower ranking. Workers are expected to collect at least three times more than they are being paid.
"We'll identify the ones that can do the very best, and they're the ones that come in more regularly," Gorton said to the assembled crowd Friday.
On workdays, starting Nov. 13, the bell ringers will gather at the Salvation Army headquarters on Ninth Avenue N about 9:30 a.m. The high producers will get first choice of where to work, while lower producers will take what's left. In some cases, there may not be enough shifts to go around.
Outside the building, before applications were being accepted, Hendershot and her friend Bobbi DuBois were talking in much more basic terms about what the bell-ringing job could mean.
DuBois, 42, said her husband has had to scale back his painting business, and she lost a job as a school cafeteria worker. "I've tried to get little jobs here and there cleaning for our old clients. That's pretty much how we've been getting by — wing and a prayer."
The bell-ringing job would help make ends meet and help her give her 9-year-old daughter a better Christmas. But that's not what she talked about most on Friday.
She recalled how her father used to volunteer as a bell ringer and said she always meant to do it someday. She talked about the people who might slip a dollar or a coin into her kettle if she gets the job, people who might even be struggling themselves, and how she'd like "to look them in the eye and touch them on the arm and say, 'You're going to be OK.' "
"I need this right now," she said.
Curtis Krueger can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8232.