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NEW ORLEANS—The ground is long-since dry and tourists have returned like Capistrano swallows to this hurricane-tossed city that HR helped rebuild, the site of the
2009 Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Annual Conference & Exposition.
New Orleans’ Jazz & Heritage Festival, for example, attracted between 375,000 and 400,000 attendees in April 2008, and at its peak the festival employs about 1,000 seasonal workers. Its economic impact is an estimated $300 million, which includes direct and secondary spending.
After Katrina hit in August 2005, “we went through the wild, wild West” and lost it all, said EJ Encalarde, associate producer responsible for administration, HR and volunteers for the 40-year-old festival and a member of SHRM.
There was a deep concern Jazz Fest would be cancelled in 2006. The hurricane had damaged the grounds and physical structures, salt water had killed the grass, and mold clung to walls of the buildings on the Fair Grounds Race Course, where the festival is held on Gentilly Boulevard.
The Shell-sponsored event did occur, scaled back from seven days to three. It returned to its seven-day lineup in 2008.
Bringing Workers, Culture Back
“We helped to rebuild the city by helping to bring our culture back to its community,” Encalarde told
SHRM Online as she sat outside bustling Welty’s Deli in the city’s Central Business District.
But in 2006 employees scrambled to put the festival together even as they were on the phone every day with the Federal Emergency Management Administration, Encalarde recalled.
Most seasonal workers are employed for one month or less; long-term seasonal employees work five to nine months. The work includes constructing food and crafts booths and 12 stages; security and parking; laying audio cable that stretches nearly the length of five football fields; working backstage; selling concessions and food; and cleaning up.
However, there is a core of about 50 long-term employees. Average tenure approaches 20 years.
“We had to figure how to keep their morale [up], their psychological well-being healthy,” Encalarde said. The organization brought in psychologists to the festival’s Central Business District office for employees to talk to—an example of the kind of support organizations can offer in stressful times, according to HR director Jamala Torrez and to Encalarde, Torrez’s supervisor.
HR helped to rebuild their organization, including their core staffing structure, and was highly visible immediately after Katrina—at in-house, on-site and state-level meetings, re-establishing networks and community relationships, and in print and television, they said.
“We worked cooperatively and consistently with state and national leaders, reminding everyone about all of the wonderful cultural treasures and unique contributions of New Orleans’ heritage,” Encalarde said.
“We brought a thread of hope that has continued to weave a stronger and resilient community even as we stand today in the midst of yet another life-changing event and challenging circumstance,” she said of the recession.
A Branding Challenge
At Entergy Corp.— in 2009 named the 10th best corporate citizen in the nation by
Corporate Responsibility Officer magazine—human resources helps to brand HR and the organization, which employs about 14,700 people, says SHRM member Danielle Lombard-Sims, SPHR.
“If you’re not from the area, the only thing you know about New Orleans is Katrina and the crime,” says Lombard-Sims, who joined the
Fortune 500 company in 2008 as manager for training and development at Entergy Services Inc., Entergy’s administrative division.
Entergy supplies electricity to 2.7 million utility customers in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, and has annual revenues of more than $13 billion.
The company values community volunteerism among employees, according to Lombard-Sims. Promoting that is one of the ways HR helps brand the company to potential hires and interest them in New Orleans and its other Gulf Coast locations.
When called upon by the hiring manager, HR works with Entergy’s relocation group “to give [prospective hires and their families] the idea there is more to New Orleans” than what they saw on television in 2005, she said.
Part of Entergy’s HR staff serves on a school relations group, which focuses on recruiting interns and new college graduates. However, the recruitment challenge with that demographic “is not due to Katrina but to generational differences,” Lombard-Sims told
The young generations—X and Y—are more interested in how long they have to stay in a position before they are promoted, she said. That’s where HR emphasizes Entergy’s concept of “career lattices” to “demonstrate we have a broad range of opportunities,” the volunteer co-chair of SHRM’s 61st Annual Conference & Exposition said.
Lattices allow employees to move laterally or diagonally; they were “created to demonstrate the different career opportunities someone can [have] within their career at Entergy—something other than an up-and-down career ladder.”
Gathering Scattered Employees
At Emeril’s Homebase—the administrative arm of Delmonico, NOLA and Emeril’s, the three New Orleans restaurants chef Emeril Lagasse owns and operates—HR helped with rebuilding by reaching out and communicating with employees scattered by Katrina. It assisted with housing, recruiting and training new employees, said Tom Pyburn, PHR, HR manager for Emeril’s Homebase and a member of SHRM.
That meant “doing whatever we could to get them back to work,” he said. Delmonico employs about 70 people, and NOLA and Emeril’s each employ 100 people, according to Pyburn, who said hiring there is back to normal.
“A city must have citizens, and an important component of attracting citizens is providing employment,” he observed.
“Competition for talent was extreme” in the early post-Katrina days, with employers such as McDonald’s offering $10 per hour and a $6,000 signing bonus—heady stuff for positions such as dishwashers, he recalled.
When recruiting, he found that the face-to-face appeal of job fairs is a much more effective method than Craigslist and newspaper ads.
“I was going to job fairs whenever I could” as well as setting up recruitment booths on campus, he said. “We also employed a referral bonus to our employees. That helped.”
However, he added, “because of our brand [as upscale restaurants], recruiting was pretty easy for us” after Katrina, he said. “We didn’t have the turnover others had,” and many of its employees scattered by Katrina returned, he added. His organization was able to retain many employees who had evacuated by finding jobs for them at its restaurants in Atlanta, Orlando, Miami and Las Vegas.
When business started to pick up after Katrina, “we had to give our employees some leeway,” Pyburn said. “Some employees were affected emotionally, and some just needed time off.
“To some degree you try to be a little more understanding, maybe not pull the trigger quite as quickly. Maybe ease your standards a little bit” and be a little more forgiving of absences before they become an offense that justifies termination, said the HR veteran who has been at Emeril’s since January 2006.
Although New Orleans and its suburbs reportedly added 400 jobs in December 2008, some economic unrest exists.
“We’re starting to get the sense that just in general people need some reassurance” during an uncertain economy, the volunteer co-chair of the 2009 SHRM Annual Conference told
“We’re recognizing there’s some angst out there,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll be taking a pre-emptive strike,” he said of a meeting of his organization’s leadership to discuss how to determine if there are issues and a strategic approach to mitigate them.
“The current situation,” he noted, “brings to a head the need for communication.”
He advises getting employee input for morale-boosting activities instead of making assumptions about what they want.
“You need to involve all levels. … I think sometimes we forget—just ask them,” he said.
“It’s time to hold onto the talent you have, because when the economy rebounds you want to have your best players in position.
“I guess if there’s a lesson learned from Katrina, it’s definitely trying to focus on the good people.”
Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at
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