Surviving Katrina—Remotely

Ingenuity and fast decision-making by HR staffers helped keep a New Orleans hospital up and running.

By Susan Ladika Jan 1, 2006

HR Magazine, January 2006The Ochsner Clinic Foundation’s hospital in New Orleans was ready for hurricanes. Under its disaster management plan, staff members had been assigned to “A” and “B” teams, for example. The A Team would run the facility during a storm, and then, after two or three days, the B Team would step in to provide relief.

The plan had been well-rehearsed, and all employees had the number for the hospital’s disaster telephone line, which they were instructed to call if severe weather struck. The facility was stocked with extra food, medical supplies, air mattresses, flashlights and even fans for each patient’s bedside.

But Ochsner, like all of New Orleans, could not have anticipated Katrina.

The hurricane that raked the Gulf Coast last summer, breaking New Orleans’ protective levees, left tens of thousands of people homeless. Although the 520-bed hospital—on Ochsner’s 85-acre complex of health facilities near uptown New Orleans, about 12 miles from the city’s now-storied Superdome—wasn’t flooded, it was rocked by a different calamity: a sudden major staffing shortage that could have threatened its ability to function.

While the hospital had arranged to operate with a reduced staff during the storm, countless numbers of its employees could not return afterward. Many had evacuated before the storm, and, because of the flooding, were not allowed back into New Orleans. And many lost their homes in the flooding, making it impossible for them to return. As late as 10 weeks after the storm, the hospital’s usual workforce of 7,000 was still down by more than 1,000 employees. Many have moved away for various reasons—to get a fresh start, for example, or to avoid living in a hurricane zone.

Despite the severe staffing shortage, the hospital had to stay open during and after Katrina to serve the 450 patients who were in the facility when the storm struck. In addition, the hospital was housing many visitors who helped patients ride out the storm, plus many employees’ family members who took shelter there. So Ochsner’s employees found ways—many of them innovative—to keep the hospital operating.

Employees’ efforts over several weeks make a case study in quick, flexible staffing management. Ochsner, it turned out, was one of only three New Orleans hospitals that never closed as a result of Katrina.

A Crisis Unfolds

While Ochsner was braced for a storm, it had not expected one that would cause such widespread devastation or one that would scatter its workforce, says Joan Mollohan, SPHR, vice president of HR. As one of the hospital’s top executives and thus a member of the A Team, Mollohan was on hand when Katrina arrived on Aug. 29. She wouldn’t go home for 18 days. With no means of communication, she says, “we were not really in touch with the outside world. We didn’t realize the magnitude of what was happening.”

Mollohan and the two or three HR employees who managed to get to the hospital after the storm had their hands full with tasks in the facility, particularly with helping the many additional people being housed there during and after Katrina. (See “Meanwhile, in New Orleans …”.)

The bulk of the hospital’s HR efforts—which would prove to be anything but normal for many weeks—were managed by two Ochsner executives and their ad hoc team of a dozen or more people working from Baton Rouge, La., about 80 miles away.

One of the executives was Wendy Willis, PHR, employment director for the Ochsner Clinic Foundation, which operates the New Orleans hospital and two others as well as a number of specialized clinics. She’s a member of the B Team, set up to relieve the A Team.

Two days before Katrina struck, Willis had departed—with others’ encouragement—on a planned vacation cruise in the Gulf of Mexico. The ship made it only as far as Galveston, Texas, when Willis’ vacation was cut short. But she couldn’t get back to New Orleans.

Willis set out for Louisiana on a circuitous route that went through Houston and Tampa, Fla., before she arrived in Baton Rouge, where the hospital had established a temporary center of operations at one of its facilities. There, she met up with another B Team member, Jan Brien, Ochsner’s director of organizational development and training.

Willis and Brien set up an HR office that eventually grew to about 15 staff members and became the center of virtually all HR operations for the New Orleans hospital. They handled, among other things, employee services, compensation and housing.

Although Willis and Brien’s team in Baton Rouge had access to some of the HR files in New Orleans, they needed up-to-the-minute information on workers’ whereabouts and availability. They quickly established an employee registration database designed to match employees’ skills with Ochsner’s most critical needs and to provide employees with personal help as well.

Word about the database went out to employees via the disaster phone line, mass e-mails and newspaper notices. Employees could supply their information for the database online or through the hospital’s call center. The effort was staffed by a mix of Ochsner employees—from financial analysts to auditors to nurses—who got a brief orientation from Brien before taking calls from other employees dispersed throughout the country.

Callers wanted to know what New Orleans was like and how the hospital was faring. There were few easy answers, as Brien notes: “The news was so sketchy the first few days after the storm.” Callers also wanted to know if they still had jobs. Some phoned in every day. “They needed that connection to the city, to their employer, to hear everything was going to be OK,” Brien says. “They just felt comforted to hear about Ochsner.”

About 90 percent of the hospital’s employees contacted Ochsner through the call center or online. They provided information on where they were located, whether they had a place to live, their computer skills and other abilities, their certifications, their current job, whether they would take a different job, and whether they needed child care.

Often, there were family needs to take into account. “A lot of people wanted to work, but they had child care or housing issues,” Willis says. A nurse might be available to work, for example, but might need a safe place for her children because schools were closed. For those workers, Ochsner set up a free child care program in its Kids Club, which is normally used by patients’ children. Employees’ family members volunteered to watch the youngsters.

In one instance, the Ochsner team heard from a licensed practical nurse who was living at a shelter in Lafayette, La., about 60 miles from Baton Rouge, with her grandmother. The nurse was willing to work but had no place to stay. Within a half-hour, Ochsner found a host family in Baton Rouge. From there, the employee could commute—at Ochsner’s expense—to New Orleans. Brien recalls that someone in the host family said to her, “We’d love to have them. When are they coming? What do they want for dinner?”

The Personal Touch

Ochsner employees and their friends and family members took in other employees in the Share a Home program, which was managed from Baton Rouge. “There was a lot of case management, social work, going on with the deployment process,” Willis says. HR also was busy managing numerous other programs to assist employees.

For example, about 60 health care organizations around the country offered to aid Ochsner employees via an adopt-a-family program by sending much-needed household items. The employees were nominated to receive the assistance by their managers.

Ochsner’s own philanthropy department collected monetary donations from, among others, family members and friends, health care organizations, and vendors to assist employees. By early November, 750 employees had applied for grants of up to $2,500, and $1.3 million had been pledged.

And then there was the woman in California’s Sonoma Valley who became an Ochsner benefactor by chance. She wanted to help Katrina victims, so she bought radio ads urging residents in her area to meet her at a local Wal-Mart and donate goods to help those struggling down in New Orleans. The woman then contacted various New Orleans-area charities, but they said they could use only cash donations, Brien says.

When the woman contacted Ochsner, however, the hospital gladly accepted the donated items—two trailers full of goods—and set up “Och-Mart” in the New Orleans hospital cafeteria. Employees, patients and visitors could pick from basics such as toothbrushes and diapers.

Back to Business

It was crucial not only to get Ochsner employees situated but also to get the hospital back on its feet as soon as possible. To bring employees back to work, Ochsner had to take some uncommon actions.

The hospital decided to provide housing and transportation for hundreds of employees, and weeks after the storm Ochsner was still spending about $75,000 a day on the effort. The transportation portion included buses between Baton Rouge and New Orleans as well as a bus to carry employees between the hospital and the Sheraton Hotel on Canal Street. “We need to take care of our own,” Brien recalls saying at the time. “We can’t wait for FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] money.”

One of the employees Ochsner put up at the Sheraton was systems administrator Bob Jones. His house, as well as his grandmother’s and his girlfriend’s homes, were uninhabitable after the storm. “I was basically homeless,” he says. “I had no alternative.” He and other Ochsner employees were able to work from the Sheraton when necessary because the hospital had set up computers that were linked to Ochsner’s system.

“These guys are the best,” says Jones, who has worked at Ochsner for four years. “For a big company to perform at this kind of human level is incredible.”

The HR staff members working out of Baton Rouge were there for about a month before returning to their New Orleans home base. But as late as November, many employees throughout the hospital were still in Baton Rouge and were commuting to New Orleans, about an hour’s drive each way.

Filling the Gaps

While Ochsner survived its short-term staffing problems in the weeks after the storm, it still faces longer-term worker shortages. About 1,500 Ochsner employees have left the area. As a result, some employees were being shifted from job to job close to year’s end. For example, Samantha Frost, who evacuated to Baton Rouge, is a managing auditor for corporate audit compliance and privacy but—in addition to doing her own job—has worked in the call center, helped employees with applications for Red Cross assistance and lent a hand with payroll. “It’s been a great learning experience—I’ll say that,” Frost says. “More than anything, Ochsner needed to stay open.”

In holding job fairs to rebuild its staff, Ochsner has looked for food service workers, janitors, laundry workers and others willing to take lower-paying jobs. Many who held such jobs were shuttled out of the city during the mass evacuations. With lower-paid workers in short supply, Ochsner has had to bump up its pay levels for their jobs. The hospital’s competitors for such workers are not just other health service providers but also companies such as fast-food chains. Mollohan says one fast-food chain was offering $8.50 an hour plus a $6,000 signing bonus to anyone who would stay for a year.

In the days just after the storm, Ochsner employees who moved from job to job received their regular paychecks. Later, some transferred into other jobs—some that paid more, others that paid less—and through it all, Brien says, Ochsner never failed to pay anyone.

After the Storm

Katrina reminded Ochsner just how important it is to be able to adapt. As Willis says, there are no specific HR guidelines for dealing with chaos like that which the storm caused in New Orleans. “We learned that we actually are a very well-prepared organization, hurricane-wise,” she says, but “weeks upon weeks of not being able to return to the city is something none of us really expected.”

Yet there are lessons to keep in mind. Having diverse vendors in various states, for example, made a big difference in keeping the hospital running. It also helped that some of those suppliers were small firms. “Small companies were generally quicker” in responding to Oschner’s needs, Brien says. “Small businesses were very crafty, very resourceful.”

When any business—regardless of whether it’s in health care—faces a calamity, Willis says, its HR staff must be “flexible, creative and resourceful. With a hurricane or other natural disaster, there’s always going to be an element of unpredictability.”

Susan Ladika has been a journalist for more than 20 years, working in both the United States and Europe. She is now based in Tampa, Fla., and her freelance work has appeared in publications such as The Wall Street Journal-Europe and The Economist.


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