Don't Forget the Staff

September 15, 2005

Students scattered by Hurricane Katrina have found doors at other colleges open to them. Faculty members have often drawn on colleagues at other institutions for a bit of office space. But what about staff members?

Staff members are not getting “visiting” status like many professors and students. Fortunately, colleges closed by Katrina have continued to pay most of their employees, and many staff members have set up shop wherever they can find a phone that doesn’t have a 504 area code.

Kristine Lelong, a spokeswoman for Loyola University in New Orleans, set up shop in her parents’ home, in Youngsville, Louisiana, about a two-and-a-half hour drive west of New Orleans, she said. Lelong, sitting in her folding chair, has been busy fielding calls on her new cell phone, and checking e-mail on the laptop she placed on a card table. Lelong said that the university has located “about 85 percent” of its employees, and has asked all employees to fill out direct deposit forms so that can continue to get paychecks easily.

Many of the employees have checked in using a blog set up by Rhonda Cartwright, Loyola’s chief financial officer, the day after Katrina hit. Lelong said that the university’s food service and cleaning staff were hired and managed by outside companies that are responsible for those employees. Admissions and academic support staff are working from an office at the University of Houston, and the president and his administrative staff are working from an office in Alexandria, La. Some of the university’s security and physical plant staff are on campus tending to buildings. One of the things Lelong wasn’t sure about was about how support was being provided to research staff members whose salaries are typically paid by research grants.

Keeping those lab technicians, postdocs and graduate assistants who are paid by grants afloat has been a tricky issue. Bronya J.B. Keats, chair of genetics at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, which is in New Orleans, has been leading the charge for her department. “That’s my biggest concern right now,” she said. She said that the postdocs in the department who are “single and didn’t have the concern of moving a spouse or children somewhere” were able to tag along with principal investigators who found space in colleagues’ labs at other institutions.

For two lab technicians who have families and were not able to follow their principal investigators, however, “I don’t really have a solution at this point,” Keats said.

She added that if research associates aren’t able to work with their boss, then the “grant can’t really pay them. We’re trying to get them to Houston,” where many researchers have relocated at the Baylor College of Medicine and the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Keats and the department’s administrative staff are setting up in Baton Rouge. If need be, Keats will try to make room for the technicians in Baton Rouge. “I really don’t want them to lose their jobs,” she said.

Keats herself will need to have a functioning research staff soon so she can begin to rebuild the work she lost to Katrina. Keats was cultivating a population of mice specifically bred as a model of a population with the genetic mutation for Usher Syndrome, an illness that causes children to be born deaf, and then to go blind in their teenage years. “It was close to completed,” Keats said.

Robert Cashner, dean of the graduate school and vice chancellor of research at the University of New Orleans, said in an e-mail that accommodating staff members is “going to be a priority.” He said that staff on active grants or contracts are still being paid, but that “there are problems if they don't have direct deposit of paychecks and for people that may have been appointed but the paperwork may not have been completed.”

Tulane University officials said that full-time and part-time staff members who are eligible for benefits are still being paid. Officials said they are not sure how long that arrangement will last. Wednesday, Tulane was having an orientation for staff members that have been brought to a new office in Houston where work is underway.

Walter Bumphus, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, said staff members in the system are still being paid. No other information about community and technical colleges was available yesterday, but meetings discussing the issue were ongoing.

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