NEW ORLEANS – The message is clear on storefront marquees, brightly colored banners and the handwritten signs taped by merchants inside windows across this battered city: businesses reopening after Hurricane Katrina (search) have a surplus of jobs and not enough workers to fill them.
The shortage is obvious at the city's fanciest hotels, where a lack of staff means maid service is offered just once a week. It is just as glaring at fast-food restaurants, where long lines of cars snake through parking lots because most have only enough workers to operate drive-through windows. It's virtually impossible to pass through any functioning part of town without seeing "Now Hiring" posted somewhere.
"Two months ago if you were looking for a job, it probably wasn't that easy," said Darren Aucoin, manager of a Shoe Carnival store in Gretna, a New Orleans suburb that saw minimal flooding and was relatively quick to get power and water back. "Now if you can't find a job, you're not trying."
Burger King (search), which first reopened its New Orleans restaurants by busing kitchen crews about 80 miles from Baton Rouge, has now taken the unprecedented step of offering $6,000 bonuses to hourly employees agreeing to work full-time for at least a year in the metropolitan area.
Most of the people who've been able to return to New Orleans (search) have been either wealthy or in the middle class, in part because their neighborhoods were damaged the least — leaving a hole for business owners who depend on unskilled labor.
"The service industry and unskilled labor jobs are the ones really in demand and the people in that category have not come back," said John Trapani, a professor and vice dean at Tulane University's business school. "There will be a shortage of labor until population starts to return and who knows what percentage is going to return and when?"
The demand by services businesses for workers is set against a parallel demand for people to work in hurricane clean-up. Some employers have turned to immigrant workers from Central and South America to fill those jobs.
But with thousands of New Orleanians scattered across the country, scores of more ordinary jobs remain open. And the demand for workers is similarly dire on the Mississippi coast.
All along Highway 49 in Gulfport, Miss. are signs advertising jobs. Most are variations on this theme: "Now hiring for all positions."
One of those looking for workers is Rolf Howard, the general manager at Applebee's, which is operating with half its normal staff despite seeing its sales more than double since the storm.
Howard was able to reopen a week after Katrina. But many of his employees have relocated and can't return because there was no place to live. To fill in behind them, Howard says, he can no longer afford to be picky.
"We're not even being superselective. We can't afford to. We are literally hiring every day."
In New Orleans, a large "Now Hiring" banner hung in Shoe Carnival's storefront window. And Aucoin said he had increased staff by nearly double from pre-storm levels because of a spike in sales with some shoppers replacing shoes destroyed in the floodwaters.
He declined to say how much better business was, but said he understood why. Residents in areas where power and water are back have returned faster than most stores could reopen, leaving those first few that were up and running flooded with customers looking to replace household items or simply to get out of the house for some shopping therapy.
"It really is a great opportunity for businesses that can open to take advantage of this before the city gets back into economic equilibrium," Trapani said.
A Best Buy electronics store had a line of customers out the door earlier this week. A large banner read, "Now hiring at all locations." The store had set up a computer station a few feet inside the front door for applicants.
Kelly Cahill, controller at the Arden Cahill Academy in Gretna, said the private school put many of its regular employees' families to work as they tried to clean up in time to reopen for students this month.
"We've had anybody's boyfriend or husband, anybody that wanted to come by — basically anybody that needed work, we gave a job to for cleanup," she said.
The few restaurants open have been packed. They've had to shorten operating hours because of curfews but still have to lengthen servers' shifts because there aren't enough employees to do a complete shift change in a given day.
"We're pulling 12-hour shifts," said Nicole Blais, a server at Houston's in suburban Metairie. She was brought in from a New Orleans location that hasn't been able to reopen. "When they reopened they only had a couple servers back, so they started hiring, but whatever people they didn't have to train they were desperate for."
Houston's is still hiring, she said, and with the restaurant always jammed, the money's been good for people like her who rely on tips.
In downtown New Orleans, hospitality industry workers are in short supply, especially in the hotels that now are trying to house as many relief workers and contractors as they can.
Le Pavillon, distinguished by its huge columns and ornate interior of gold-painted crown molding and giant crystal chandeliers, was operating with about 20 percent of its staff this week. Along with cutting back maid service, all meals are buffet style with disposable plates and utensils.
"We're doing better than most hotels. A lot haven't opened yet because they have absolutely no employees. There's no place for them to live," said Ed Morin, the hotel's managing director.
Pressure will mount on businesses to increase lower-level wages to entice hourly workers back, Trapani said. They'll also have to help employees address immediate housing needs, and some already have.
At Le Pavillon, some key employees who lost their homes have been allowed to live in the hotel temporarily. Morin said he hasn't decided how long they can stay.
"Some people, the water was up so high in their homes — it depends on how this situation progresses. I haven't given it a deadline," Morin said.