Oil Spill Becoming Personal for SHRM Members

By Kathy Gurchiek Jul 7, 2010

The disastrous BP oil spill has become personal for Jeff I. LeBlanc, SPHR, president of the Mobile (Ala.) Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) chapter.

More than 1 million gallons of oil a day have been leaking into the Gulf of Mexico since a drilling rig exploded April 20, 2010.

“When it started out, … it’s something on the nightly news. It had not reached our shores yet. It was a fear and a thought, but it wasn’t reality yet,” said the HR manager at Pilot Catastrophe Services, Inc., in Mobile.The city is located at the head of the 30-mile-long Mobile Bay—which is an inlet of the Gulf of Mexico—on the western shore.

“When it entered our beaches, when it entered our bay, it became personal. All of a sudden, it wasn’t this anonymous threat that we saw in the news. It was here, and it was real,” he said.

LeBlanc takes issue with the “spill” terminology. The release of oil has been described as the largest in U.S. history. According to a published report,the reservoir from which the oil is spewing was still more than 90 percent full of oil and contained more than 2 billion gallons.

The spread of oil spanned east from the Mississippi Delta and west of it, extending off the coasts of Mississippi and Alabama and stretching to Pensacola City, Fla., and toward Panama City, Fla. Tar balls and patties have been reported in Northwest Florida. And oil was found on the beaches of Biloxi, a resort area in Mississippi, on June 28, 2010, according to a news report.

LeBlanc recalls letting his dog out early one morning and smelling what he thought was creosote.

“It was the smell of oil coming up the bay,” he said. “That’s when it gets personal.”

While the oil disaster is not affecting his organization, it still can affect employees in other ways, LeBlanc says.

Recognizing Need for Flexibility

“As human resource professionals, we need to understand and assist our employees and their families as they proceed through this anxious and fearful time. Our job is to keep our employees motivated and focused on the mission of our companies. There is a whole new batch of issues that HR will be challenged by,” he wrote in his president’s message in the June 2010 newsletter to chapter members.

Those challenges, he said, might include employees anxious and unfocused on work because of the spill’s effect on a spouse’s or family member’s primary or secondary job. For example, an employee might be part of a family that has fished or shrimped for generations and has seen that source of revenue dry up. He pointed to a 134-family-run oyster plant in Louisiana that was shuttered because of the spill, displacing workers.

“You need to be aware of that. You need to have a game plan,” he advised HR professionals in the affected areas. “The human element is the biggest part of most companies. We need to keep [employees] motivated, we need to keep them focused … and that may involve some adaption about leave time,” he said.

“Don’t punish an employee; [don’t] terminate an employee, on normal attendance/punctuality issues alone. That employee [who] was fantastic may not have turned bad; they may be having some tough times,” he said.

“We love our policy books; we love our legal department, [but] we may have to make some exceptions [for the situations] we find ourselves in.”

Listening to Employees

The anxiety resulting from the oil disaster can have an impact on an employee’s health and a company’s health coverage. LeBlanc advised HR to make sure that employees are aware of their company’s employee assistance program (EAP). Staying in touch with employees is important, he said.

“Make sure you make the rounds and talk to your supervisors. Make sure you know what’s going on with them and in their lives. Give them that benefit of the doubt when some issues come up,” he said.

Kaulla Watson, branch manager for employment services at Adecco USA Inc. in Mobile, pointed to news reports of the charter boat captain who ended his life in the wheelhouse of his boat with a gunshot to his head.

“Had he known about a resource [such as an EAP] … perhaps that may have given him another avenue” out of hopelessness, she said. HR professionals, she said, need “to have a listening ear and to be in tune with what each individual’s needs are and be empathetic to that.”

Watson’s office is located about 20 minutes from Mobile Bay and about an hour from Gulf Shores, Ala. Her branch covers the Gulf Coast area from Hattiesburg, Miss., to Pensacola, Fla. The spill, Watson said, has “increased the opportunity for us to be able to utilize our expertise in hiring and recruiting” for clients looking to hire people for cleanup work that pays from $12 to $18 per hour.

She and two HR employees, assisted by an outside Adecco team, take 50 to 100 job-related calls daily. Many cleanup-related jobs require people to work seven days a week, 12 hours a day.

Some applicants are like the laid-off teacher whose unemployment has no relation to the oil spill. For others, though, their job loss is spill-related. Watson recalled three applicants whose jobs disappeared when the seafood processing plant where they worked closed. They were willing to commute more than three hours round trip and put in long days.

She had qualms as to whether the applicants could maintain that rigorous schedule, but “I saw that desperation. I decided we needed to give them an opportunity,” and they ended up being among that company’s most reliable workers, she said. That example indicates how important it is for HR professionals to be careful listeners, according to Watson.

“It’s so important at this time that we hear what the person is saying, even if [he or she is] not exactly putting into words what that need is … and give them advice or a solution.”

Her department also works to make sure the employer for whom they find workers recognizes the need to be flexible so employees can get time off to handle personal needs, and that employees understand how to make those requests for time off, she said.

Watson has stepped out of the manager’s role and into a generalist role during the spill crisis, driving to multiple training locations in Mississippi to provide on-site support for job candidates from across the state.

“Everybody has to be in the kitchen baking at the same time,” she said. “It really does help with the morale. … When everybody’s there with the apron on and stirring the pots all together, it just gives you that push you need to go a little bit further.”

Communication Is Key

Some businesses along the Gulf Coast and Florida Panhandle have not been affected significantly.

“It’s just business as usual” at Quality Filters in Robertsdale, Ala., said HR manager Tina Miller, although she had feared that some employees might be lured away by the bigger salaries for cleanup work.

The Baldwin County (Ala.) SHRM chapter president thinks that some have stayed because they sense that the cleanup work won’t be long term and because of the company’s family-oriented environment.

“We always hear people quit to make 25 cents more down the road, but I feel it is not about the money. We have a great company,” Miller said.

“I stay involved, and I try to make sure [employees] feel valued,” she added, noting that the company’s guiding principle is VISION, an acronym for value Individuals, Sustain Improvement, Outperform Needs.

Other organizations are picking up business since the spill. That’s the case at Pinnacle Computer Services Inc., says its HR director, Bonnie Scherry, SPHR, who is the Bayou SHRM chapter secretary. Her Houma, La.-based employer has picked up a contract that requires hiring more people; it expects to have the contract anywhere from six months to two years, she said.

LuLu’s Homeport Marina, a restaurant in Gulf Shores, Ala., has seen a dip in tourism-related business since the oil spill and froze hiring in mid-May 2010, said HR assistant Shemeika L. Brock. That freeze is starting to thaw, although there are 307 full-time employees instead of the typical 350 and a few employees left to take cleanup jobs. Oil has washed ashore in Gulf Shores, pushed by winds from Hurricane Alex.

However, the emphasis is on the positive. Communication—with employees and customers—is a key strategy at the six-year-old restaurant, owned by Lucy Buffett, sister of musician Jimmy Buffett, Brock says.

“When [employees] walk in the door, they know they’re going to be treated with compassion and respect and honesty,” she said.

“We decided early on that if we have just a few people that are worried, we need to keep them informed. Don’t hide any information; give them factual information and support. Let them know we’re here as a resource,” Brock said of HR. For example, the restaurant supplies the necessary paperwork for employees filing a claim of financial impact with BP.

LuLu’s made headlines in June 2010 when Alabama National Guardsmen, called out by Gov. Bob Riley, stopped there to help employees fill out lost revenue claims with BP and help area residents deal with the claims process.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at kathy.gurchiek@shrm.org.


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