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  Job Outpouring for Evacuees Sparks Backlash Among Locals


After Hurricane Katrina, the influx of thousands of jobless people into new cities has ignited an unusual labor quandary: Many evacuees have arrived to the open arms of employers -- touching off resentment from some longtime unemployed locals.

In places such as Houston, Baton Rouge, La., and San Antonio, where evacuees have arrived en masse, employers have blended hiring needs with a groundswell of compassion. Local outlets of McDonald's Corp., Exxon Mobil Corp., PetSmart Inc. and others have visited evacuee sites to pursue Katrina victims. Flyers at one shelter last week read, "San Antonio Jobs for Katrina Evacuees," and listed more than 60 employers with contact names and phone numbers. Each had called a local radio station vowing to offer jobs to hurricane victims in the city.

That irritated Joe Dominguez, a 55-year-old construction worker in San Antonio out of a job for seven months. He fumed that local businesses were making an extra effort to open jobs for the victims. "It's not right," he said. "I can understand they need to work, but a lot of people [who were already] in San Antonio need jobs, too."

In Northern Louisiana, and other places close to the storm zone, the impulse among companies to reach out has been phenomenal. The Houston office of WorkSource, a nonprofit organization that helps people find jobs, has received so many faxed job forms from companies offering to hire Katrina evacuees that staffers have had to change the fax machine's toner cartridge several times a day. There have been hundreds of requests for a range of jobs including barbers, truckers and technology workers. About 60 companies have asked to hire Katrina evacuees only, said Leonard Torres, a senior business consultant with the organization. Mr. Torres said it appears that a number of the jobs are being created just for evacuees.

After setting up an evacuee-hiring hotline last week, the Texas Workforce Commission saw its switchboard light up, with 708 companies calling in postings for 8,428 openings. The state commission writes unemployment checks and helps people find jobs. At a Dallas job fair for evacuees on Thursday, 38% of the 2,100 attendees received job offers or had offers pending -- a far higher rate of success than at most job fairs, said commission spokeswoman Ann Hatchitt.

Ms. Hatchitt said the commission checked to make sure there wasn't a statute that bars employers from focusing their hiring on Katrina evacuees. "What we have to look for is whether or not a protected class is being discriminated against," she said. "No one is discriminating against a protected class." She adds that the job fairs are available to everyone, and that some nonevacuee Texas residents have attended.

San Antonio's unemployment rate in July was 4.9%, according to the latest available data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That is roughly in line with the national rate -- but San Antonio has swelled in recent days by an estimated 13,000 people from Katrina-ravaged areas.

While many employers want to help victims of a disaster, does that gesture come at the expense of others in need of jobs? PetSmart, a Phoenix-based chain of about 760 pet-supply stores, is recruiting workers for its San Antonio-area stores at an evacuee center in that city because the company wants "to help out as much as we possibly can," said spokesman Bruce Richardson. "There's no established policy that we're going to be hiring one person over another one depending on whether they were evacuated. We're just sensitive to the need."

At McDonald's, Steve Russell, senior vice president of human resources in the U.S., said the chain hasn't launched a program to hire evacuees, although individual McDonald's franchisees may be reaching out to them. He wouldn't say whether evacuees will get preference over other applicants, but said the company's focus is on hiring the right people.

After volunteering to pass out food in the Houston Astrodome after Katrina hit, Erica Milburn was moved to do more. As the office manager of GrowthForce LLC, a small bookkeeping firm in Kingwood, Texas, she decided to hire one of the victims. The company didn't expect to add another entry-level bookkeeper for a few months. But Ms. Milburn sped the process along. The company interviewed three people displaced by the storm for the $12.50-an-hour position and offered the job to a bookkeeper from Gulfport, Miss. GrowthForce didn't consider any nonevacuees.

"These are people who have lost everything," said Ms. Milburn. "Someone [not affected by Katrina] might have been looking for a job for awhile but I'm sure they have a home they can go to. .... It's just the right thing to do."

But some of the unemployed who weren't affected by the hurricane view themselves as indirect victims. Richard Richardson lost his $7.50-an-hour landscaping job about a month ago, a move his boss blamed on rising gasoline prices, and he believes the influx of hurricane victims is keeping him from getting another one.

Amid the efforts of San Antonio employers to hire evacuees, he said he's been getting fewer job-interview requests and callbacks. "I know it's a tragedy and everything, but they're taking [the evacuees] and just handing them jobs," Mr. Richardson said as he pushed his daughter's tan stroller away from a career center. "We might not be as bad off, but there's some of us who might just be as poor as anyone else."

Mr. Richardson said he and some out-of-work friends are planning to start a petition against the employers' efforts on the behalf of Katrina's victims.

Inside a Texas Health and Human Services office in San Antonio, Luis Zimmerle, 48, bounced his sleeping 3-year-old son in his arms last week as he waited to file paperwork for Medicaid benefits. Having worked as a disc jockey all over the country for 30 years, he has been unemployed for seven months. Normally, he said his wait to speak with a department representative is an hour and a half, but because a busload of evacuees had filed through before him, he'd already been sitting in the back row for more than two hours.

"I personally don't care for it," Mr. Zimmerle said. "Where did all the jobs come from?"

Sitting in his car with a cracked windshield in the parking lot of a career center in San Antonio, Tony Aguilera, 20, said he thinks the evacuees seeking jobs are making it harder on other unemployed people. A month ago he was laid off from his $7-an-hour job as a security guard after he had car trouble and missed a day of work. Before that he had worked at a Pizza Hut. His finances have grown so thin he had to cancel his cellphone. Employers are "reaching out too much for people who don't even live here," Mr. Aguilera said. "It ain't our fault. We're struggling as it is."

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