Acadiana companies bring evacuees back into the workforce.


The Acadiana, Baton Rouge and Houston communities, three areas sheltering most Hurricane Katrina evacuees, can't possibly absorb the hundreds of thousands of displaced workers ' but it won't be for lack of trying.

Across the country, many companies are moving quickly to help their employees. Wal-Mart has pledged jobs at other stores for out-of-work employees, and McDonald's is promising to continue paying displaced workers. Locally, convenience store conglomerate Shop Rite is posting "Help Wanted" signs at more than 60 Shop Rite and Tobacco Plus stores throughout the state, and Sonic is transferring workers from its 10 New Orleans area stores, as well as hiring other franchisees' employees.

"Anyone who has relocated or is displaced, we're taking them in, anywhere they want to go," says Gary Wilkerson, vice president of Kergan Brothers, which owns 40 Sonic stores throughout south Louisiana.

Even with their lives in upheaval, most of Lafayette's evacuees are ready to get to work, says Henry Florsheim, vice president of the Lafayette Economic Development Authority. "I went to the Cajundome to pass out job fair flyers, and as I was putting them up a lot of people were walking up asking for them," he says. "It'll give them some money so they can get out of the shelter. We want to get people working as soon as possible."

Thirty-one-year-old Marguerite Christoval, who fled New Orleans' West Bank with a large entourage of family members, wants to work partly to help escape the stress of the situation. The generosity of a local family is providing her and her children with temporary housing, and the former customer service specialist with the City of New Orleans' traffic court wants an income so that she can find permanent housing in Lafayette. "I just want my own money. I am ready to get back to work to take my mind off of what's going on around me," says Christoval, whose husband is a New Orleans police officer still working in the city.

Last week, Lafayette Consolidated Government was awarded National Emergency Grant funds to provide federal assistance for 470 temporary public service jobs [in non-profit and government sectors] for evacuees like Christoval. For up to 12 weeks, participants will be paid $9 an hour and can work 40-hour weeks. Lafayette Workforce Investment Board Executive Administrator Glenn Dugas urges all non-profits and government agencies to contact his office with available positions, as monies from any unfilled positions will be returned to the federal government. (For more information, call the LCG's Workforce Investment Act office at (337) 291-7034.)

Florsheim's Cajundome flyer advertised an "Evacuee Job Fair" held Monday from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. in conjunction with UL Lafayette, LCG and the State Department of Labor. Companies like The Lemoine Co., Halliburton and Northwestern Mutual participated, offering jobs ranging from unskilled laborers to engineers, financial advisers and construction managers. The fair came on the heels of last Friday's Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce seminar, which provided resources for businesses or individuals seeking office space, employment and information on relocating their businesses to Lafayette. (Those who missed the seminar can contact Patricia Parks at the chamber office at 233-2705; additional seminars will be held every Friday until further notice.) Additionally, any companies with openings can send a description of the job to the "virtual LEDA job fair" at www.lafayette.org/jobs. LEDA's Florsheim says more job fairs like the one held Monday at Cajun Field may be forthcoming.

Assistance is also coming from the financial services community. Financial adviser DeAnne Henke is donating her time to help evacuees with their investing and financial needs so they can access money to get back on their feet. She's also devoted her Web site, www.moneylifelines.com, as a resource for what area banks are offering, which car finance companies are waiving payments and for how long and where to seek other financial help, like FEMA funding.

Florsheim says the placement of employees has been quick. By Thursday of last week, Lafayette General Medical Center had hired 35 nurses and three pharmacists, all evacuees, and the number is growing, says Director of Human Resources Diane Broussard. The hospital has various openings but is fast-tracking the hiring of nurses, already in short supply before the hurricane. For a list of opportunities, visit the hospital's job center at www.lafayettegeneral.com.

"We're currently treating 65-70 New Orleans area inpatients," says Donna Landry, LGMC's chief operating officer. "To put it in perspective," says Landry, "our inpatient daily census of 100-120 pre-Katrina has held at anywhere from 210-270-plus since Katrina."

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