Monday, September 19, 2005

Target, Best Buy Taking Care Of Gulf Coast Workers

Two of Minnesota's big-box retail chains have shown big hearts when helping their Gulf Coast employees struck by Hurricane Katrina three weeks ago.
From locating all the affected workers to setting up temporary shelters to making money grants for home repairs, Best Buy and Target scrambled to send help into the biggest -- costliest -- natural disaster in U.S. history. Above all else, both companies sent out the word that any displaced employee could show up at any other store in the country and have a job. Looking out for workers is the right and the smart thing to do, said David Rodbourne, vice president of the Center for Ethical Business Cultures, an affiliate of the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis. "Recovery is all about building and sustaining good relationships with a wide constituency, including employees, customers, suppliers, you name it," Rodbourne said. "Also, there is a very long tradition of businesses stepping up and putting their shoulder toward social and community issues, certainly in this community," Rodbourne said. "I would be surprised if they didn't do this." Both companies give a lot of credit to individual employees inside and out of the affected areas for organizing money drives and stepping up to do each other's laundry, patch each other's roofs and cover each other's work shifts in stores as they reopen. "Our first priority was to locate and connect with employees," said Joe Kalkman, vice president of human resources at Best Buy. "Our managers did everything up to and including going to shelters as far away as Texas looking for familiar faces or wearing a [Best Buy] blue shirt and hoping people would notice and speak up," he said. "We had people hopping right away in their cars to go help and we had to stop them and say, 'There's no infrastructure yet; it's not safe there yet,' " said Lena Michaud, a Target spokeswoman. Businesses face mighty challenges recovering from this disaster that displaced up to 1 million people. "The human and financial effects of Hurricane Katrina will undoubtedly affect businesses well beyond the region for months to come," said the Society for Human Resource Management in a recent advisory. While business owners are hunting for their workers' compensation insurance records and lining up screening procedures as they hire on the fly, many are going beyond any legal requirements to help their employees, the organization wrote. Arkansas-based Wal-Mart got national attention for its efforts shortly after Katrina. It has reopened all but 15 of 126 properties initially closed by the storm. It also has given about $5 million in emergency cash aid to employees, between $250 and $1,000 per employee, according to spokesperson Melissa O'Brien in Bentonville, Ark. Best Buy and Target took the same tracks in their responses. The companies are working to reopen their stores as quickly as possible, to return people to their jobs and resume sales in communities trying to start over. Of seven Best Buy stores in Mississippi and Louisiana closed by the storm, four have reopened. Target has reopened 14 of its 15 closed stores. At the same time, they are helping displaced workers in steps as events unfold. Best Buy's first decision was to cover everyone's wages for at least 30 days, Kalkman said. "We learned how important that was last year in Pensacola," he said, after Hurricane Ivan hit that Florida city. After such disasters, people usually collect their checks at the nearest open Best Buy store, he said, and they often cash them there, too, for lack of any other option. Best Buy had located all its 1,273 displaced employees within 10 days. It offered cash advances for necessities, and set up a website and toll-free number to get information to employees. An electronics retailer, it also set up banks of computers with Internet connections in their stores so people can contact family, insurance agents and assistance agencies such as the Red Cross. Target also arranged for employees to pick up their paychecks at any open store. It provided similar contact options and resources such as emergency prescriptions. And it, too, promised to cover wages and benefits for displaced workers for a while. "Some stores are closed and some people are working fewer hours because of community curfews or they have to clean their houses," Michaud said. "We're trying to keep them all whole." Mike Delk moved to Slidell, La., last February to manage a Target store there. Delk, his wife and their daughter drove to Atlanta, where they have family, before Katrina hit. He came back later that week to check on the store and his employees. "The first seven days I was here I didn't even know what happened to my house, because I was busy contacting my team members to make sure they were safe," Delk said, "But we did pretty much lose everything. We had flood waters six to seven feet in my house." The store wasn't damaged. So with about a third of his employees, and company volunteers who now come in weekly shifts from Dallas and San Antonio, he's running the store for whoever's around in Slidell. It means a lot to his employees, and to the community, Delk said. "There's so much devastation here, and a lot of people still don't have electricity," he said. "They come in to share our air conditioning and get some things that they need."