Worker shortage besets a buzzing New Orleans

Jerry La Fleur and her husband moved away from New Orleans a year and a half ago, but quickly felt the pull to return home.

Then hurricane Katrina hit, and they knew they had to go back. So they began searching online for jobs.

That's when Ms. La Fleur saw a posting for her dream job at Langenstein's Market - a small, family-run grocery store with one of the best reputations in town. "I didn't have a chance at this store before Katrina," says La Fleur, who is now assistant to the produce buyer. "Nobody ever left their jobs here."

There may not be stoplights or gas stations in much of the city, but there are plenty of jobs. So many positions are going unfilled, in fact, that businesses are offering higher salaries and signing bonuses. Some are even going so far as to give free housing, transportation, and laundry services.

An adequate number of workers, of course, is crucial to New Orleans' success. The construction sector has experienced a big boom - but even it is struggling to find enough workers. Indeed, on top of the regular number of people required to run a Wendy's or a Walgreens, thousands more are needed for the city's reconstruction.

To cope with the shortages, some businesses are scaling back hours. But even as they implement such short-term solutions, they're looking ahead to longer-term issues, particularly housing. For many would-be returnees, finding a place to live is nearly impossible: As many as 210,000 homes, or half of the city's housing stock, are still uninhabitable, says Loren Scott, a professor emeritus at Louisiana State University and president of an economic forecasting firm in Baton Rouge.

"There are stores that are desperate to open, but the reason they can't is because their employees can't find a place to live," he says. "It's the mother of all problems."

Some workers are busing in each day from as far away as Baton Rouge, about an 80-mile trip one way. Others are sleeping in trailers or tents or on barges. Some are bunking with friends whose homes survived.

Those who are here and working, though, say they are just glad to be back: The opportunities have never been better.

Kevin Rapp, a UPS driver, went back to New Orleans about a month ago and made temporary repairs to his home before returning to work.

"The job situation is really crazy right now," says Mr. Rapp, rapidly loading packages onto a dolly. "There are help-wanted signs everywhere."

UPS alone needs more than 100 workers in the city - mostly in its warehouse. And with the holiday season here and stores restocking their shelves after the hurricane, Rapp is working 13 hours a day, six days a week.

He says full-time employees are being offered a $3,000 bonus, called a "hurricane allowance," to return because of the "stress of the situation."

Walgreens pharmacies also initiated a bonus system immediately after the hurricane. Employees can make an extra $1 an hour for the first 30 days they work, and an extra $1.25 after that.

To date, the company has 50 of its 74 affected stores open with about 700 people working. That's about half of its prehurricane workforce, says Tiffani Bruce, a company spokeswoman.

Understanding that housing was the biggest factor keeping stores closed, Ms. Bruce says Walgreens brought down hundreds of trailers, from as far away as Canada, and set them up in store parking lots.

Many businesses have also scaled way back on their hours. When the first Wendy's reopened in New Orleans three weeks ago, food was served by drive-through only from 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.

But as soon as its neon sign flickered back on, cars began lining up along St. Charles Avenue, says Andrew Sims, director of area operations. "We knew that people were desperate because they were driving all the way out to Jefferson Parish to get a hamburger," he says, sitting in the restaurant's newly opened dining room.

Out front, a huge banner announces that Wendy's is open. It also displays the restaurant's bonus package: an additional $125 a week for full-time employees. Mr. Sims says he has also bumped up salaries by 10 to 15 percent.

Beyond banners and help-wanted signs, businesses are attending job fairs, advertising in newspapers and online, and hiring headhunters.

Back at Langenstein's Market, co-owner Mike Lanaux says before Katrina he had 60 employees. Today, he has lured back a few more than 20 - and they are getting burned out fast.

The store originally opened seven days a week, but Mr. Lanaux recently cut out Sunday altogether to give his employees a break.

While he doesn't offer any bonuses, he has raised salaries by about 20 percent. That is typical of what other companies are doing, says Mr. Scott.

"We've seen wage rates increase by 20 to 30 percent. And that's going to raise the price of everything," he says. "The only way Burger King can [offer big bonuses] is to raise the price of their hamburgers."

For those companies who are not providing extra incentives, workers are hard to come by. At a Blockbuster video store on Magazine Street, manager Terrill Williams is desperate to find help. He's one of only four employees at the store. "We are stressed out," he says.

He gets calls every day, but he tells them that wages went up from $6.25 to only $7, with no bonuses. "They either don't call back or don't show up for the interview," he says. "I'm about ready to find a new job myself."

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