HR Director Seeks Jobs for Hotel Workers Displaced by California Fires

Many thousands respond to Facebook post about Hilton hotel’s destruction

Dana Wilkie By Dana Wilkie October 19, 2017
HR Director Seeks Jobs for Hotel Workers Displaced by California Fires

​After California's wildfires on Oct. 10 reduced the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country Hotel to ashes, the property's HR director posted a plea on her Facebook page asking colleagues if they might have work for the 130 hotel employees who were now without jobs.

Within a few days, nearly 8,000 people had replied to Lenora Olson's post, many directing her to hotels and other establishments looking for everything from housekeepers to engineers to bartenders.

HR Director Lenora OlsonOlson, a member of the Society for Human Resource Management, knows what it's like to be out of work. She lost a job during the recession.

During the economic downturn, "HR was sometimes the first to have its budget be depleted," said Olson, whose hotel was consumed by the Tubbs fire that swept through the hills north of Santa Rosa. "Putting my life back together started with me having a job. We've got to be real. We know this hotel won't be rebuilt overnight, so I thought, 'Let's just help the employees get grounded.' "

Soon after the fire, Olson and other hotel managers reached out to employees—first to ensure they were safe, then to invite them to a gathering at a Doubletree Hotel in nearby Rohnert Park to discuss future employment.

About 100 people showed up—some with spouses and children—and Olson let them know about online job sites and upcoming job fairs, and offered to provide job recommendations and to help with writing resumes.

"People had questions about what's next, will the hotel be rebuilt, which we couldn't answer," said Olson, who added that the Doubletree also had a donation center where fire victims could pick up necessities like toothbrushes, soap, shampoo, towels and blankets. "There are some people who were so dedicated and worked for us for many years, and now they have to look for other opportunities. We have people who've worked for us for 30 years, and so they haven't had to apply for another job in a long time."

Olson introduced her employees to an HR representative from the Doubletree who wanted to interview people for open jobs there.

"They hired a couple of people on the spot," Olson said, noting that to date, about 15 people have found jobs. "I visited three local hotels during the last week, and each time I'd run into [Hilton] employees who were interviewing or starting work, so it was great. I was able to either welcome them to their new team or say some words about their performance that might help them secure a job."

[SHRM members-only online discussion platform: Disaster Prep & Recovery on SHRM Connect

Olson is also working with the local Economic Development Department, where people go  to file for unemployment benefits, learn about resume writing and interviewing skills, or attend job retraining programs.

"We're all just trying to pool our expertise and resources so we can help folks feel like they're putting their lives back together," she said.  

Atrium Hospitality is an Alpharetta, Ga.-based company that owns and operates several hotels, including the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country. The company's senior vice president of human resources, Jacinta Carter, said Atrium has s created a fund for displaced workers and is offering to match the donations contributed to it.

"I’m a little hesitant to speak to [future compensation] in these situations as our severance policies don't speak to acts of God," she said, adding that the company will allow displaced workers to cash out their paid-time-off balances.  "We definitely are making sure that they are compensated to the best of our ability until they can land something else. It’s one of those situations where [compensation] would not necessarily be covered under our standard severance plan. However, in any circumstance where we can help, we certainly will make resources available to them."

Jacquie Toppings, senior director of brand communications for Hilton Hotels, said in an e-mail to SHRM Online that Hilton team members also are trying to help the displaced employees.

"We are very sensitive to the situation," she wrote. "We have made contact with Atrium to share details of open roles in our managed properties."

As for Olson's future? Atrium has offered her another position that would require that she relocate, which Olson said she can't do right now.

While she has some promising interviews coming up, Olson has found that managing the thousands of replies to her Facebook post—as well as those to postings she made on LinkedIn and other social media sites—has become a full-time job.

"What I thought was just going to be a post shared with local HR folks turned out to be something that went all over the world, it looks like," she said.  

"I'm fortunate because my house is safe, my family's safe, and I have resources to stay afloat if I need to. But as an HR pro, you learn about your people, and some days you feel like you know too much about their lives. But that's what makes you have so much empathy and compassion for them and makes you want to work really hard—whether you're being paid or not."

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