Fluellen, 22, is one of nearly 2,000 people who applied to write postcards for close to minimum wage after the Outrage, a downtown Washington activism incubator and retail shop, put a call out for people in need of work to hand-write postcards to and for people around the country.
The District last week reported unemployment claims increased 18-fold over two weeks, to nearly 25,000 — a number that surpasses 100,000 when adding Maryland and Virginia. Nationally, a record 3.3 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits during a single week last month, a worrisome metric that economists say is only the beginning of a spike in joblessness.
The overwhelming need for work became clear to Rebecca Lee Funk, founder of the Outrage, when 24 hours into launching the Postcard Project, the retailer received nearly 1,000 applications. The first week, she said, she hired a dozen people. Several dozen more will be brought on this month.
“That has been the most profoundly sobering part,” Funk said. “People are clamoring to write postcards for $15 an hour. What does that say about the state we're in in our country?”
Virtual tip jars and GoFundMe campaigns have sprung up to help restaurant workers, barbers, fitness instructors, massage therapists, bartenders and other workers whose jobs have been lost in a shutdown meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
When Funk shut down the Outrage’s bricks-and-mortar location in mid-March, she asked community members what the store could do to support them from afar. Some said they wished they had a way to stay connected to loved ones, while others said they needed a job.
“I have a list of thousands of people who are looking for work. Do I give each person 10 hours of work? Like 150 bucks? Or do I give fewer people meaningful income that could, like, pay rent for the next month?” Funk said. “Those are very heavy questions that I did not have to grapple with a month ago. A month ago, we were talking to investors about opening hubs for activism all around the country, and now, for the foreseeable future, we’re a postcard company.”
In its first week, Funk said, the Outrage sold about 2,000 postcards.
Irene Scher, 33, bought more than 100 of them.
Scher, who lives in San Francisco and follows the Outrage on social media after volunteering with the store during the first Women’s March on Washington in 2017, was supposed to get married in June. The pandemic upended her plans.
Instead of sending invitations, Scher said, she is sending postponement postcards encouraging friends and family to stay safe and stay home.
“I wanted to do something that might have a positive social impact,” Scher said. “A lot of people are finding meaning and comfort in being able to do something to connect to people right now.”
The Outrage is selling the postcards online on a sliding scale of $3, $5 and $10 apiece. The customer can choose how much to spend.
A $3 payment covers the cost of the card and the labor to hand-write a message. A $5 payment covers the card, labor and some of the Outrage’s overhead. A $10 payment will also go toward keeping the store afloat and paying its employees, who were told they would be paid for scheduled shifts through the end of April.
New designs will be released weekly, Funk said, with guest designs by social media influencers and celebrities. Cards in stock have messages such as “We can do hard things.”
“I’m grappling with questions like, how can we bring our community together? It’s tough. It’s a crazy time,” Funk said. “I’ve been having all the feels from all these people writing in.”
Customers fill out a form that tells the postcard writers where to address the message and what to write. Workers are given a spreadsheet detailing how each card should be filled out. Each writer receives about 80 postcards per shift.
For card writers like Fluellen, whose hours at the hostel where she works have been cut because of the public health crisis, writing postcards has afforded a financial buffer in a time of increasing uncertainty. For some, it will help pay rent, Funk said. Fluellen said it has afforded her grocery money.
“What people should understand is right now anything helps,” Fluellen said. “A lot of people are panicking right now, and a lot of people are panicking alone. If in some small way I can help someone not feel alone and other people can help some of us feel less financially stressed by purchasing these postcards, it’s such a small and easy way to help each other.”
The messages she writes express hope, encouragement, love.
As she sits on the floor of her room, the scent of lavender incense drifting through the air, Fluellen tries to feel those feelings, too. It’s made her long for deeper connections in her own life and search for ways to reach out to the people she loves.
Last week, Fluellen printed out photos of herself to send to her aunt and grandmother in Florida.
“Something I’ve learned from writing these messages in the postcards is having a constant fear or anxiety during this time isn’t going to help,” she said. “What helps is letters of encouragement, reaching out to people every day, telling my mom that I love her. Letting the people I care about know that I care about them even though I can’t be with them. That’s something we can all do.”