Service Stories: Record keeping an important role in oil spill response
In a conference room at the Wingate hotel in Houma, La., members of Team Houma Finance keep track of working hours, payroll and costs for all USFWS employees. From left: Sharon Young, Kimberly Farah and Susan Merritt. Credit: Phil Kloer/USFWS
Houma, La. – Susan Merritt summed up the critical nature of her position working on the BP oil spill: “Your pay is important to you.”
With hundreds of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service workers from around the country deployed in the Gulf region, support personnel play many key roles, and none more crucial than the people who work in the Finance section, who make sure that everyone working those long hours gets paid correctly.
Merritt works in the Houma, La., Sector Finance office, which is actually a small hotel conference room at the Wingate Hotel, about five miles away from the huge BP-owned Incident Command Center south of New Orleans. She works 15-hour days, sometimes more, as the personal time recorder for employees in the Houma region, alongside Finance chief Sharon Young and cost unit leader Kimberly Farah.
“I’m sort of anal about keeping good records,” she said with a laugh. “It’s just the nature of what I do.” When she’s not at her Houma hotel, Merritt’s regular job is administrative officer at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia.
“The hours are long but the days go by super-fast,” said Finance chief Sharon Young. “I believe strongly in excellent customer service. If someone comes in at 10 p.m. we’re here to service them.”
All U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees from around the country who report to the Houma area come first to the hotel conference room. They go through check-in and orientation and are told how to record their working hours. In addition to the three Finance personnel are employees in charge of welcoming the workers and document preservation.
Young started as a GS-2 refuge clerk at Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Minnesota in 1979, worked her way up to administrative officer, and retired in 2009. But she continued to volunteer at Rice Lake as part of its Friends group, and when the opportunity came to work on the spill response, she didn’t hesitate.
“I believe in the mission and I wanted to help,” she said.
Seated at the laptop next to Young is Kimberly Farah, the cost unit leader at Team Houma Finance. Farah started her Service career as a STEP (Student Temporary Employment Program) student at Rice Lake NWR, working with Young. For six years, she has been the administrative officer at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge in Minnesota.
“What I love about the Service is that you don’t just fit into any one role,” Farah said. “You’re part of something much bigger. I’m just a small piece of the big puzzle, but all of these jobs are very important to do exactly right.”
Like most of the Fish and Wildlife employees responding to the spill, Farah volunteered. “I saw the emails from Acting Director Rowan Gould asking people to volunteer, and I talked to my supervisor. Sharon was already here, and she has been a mentor to me. She had a job to fill so the stars just aligned.”
As the response continues, Young foresees that Finance will have a difficult time filling positions in September. A lot of the qualified people work at refuges, and will be preparing for the end of the fiscal year Sept. 30, making it hard to get away from their home stations.
In the meantime, the three members of Team Houma Finance joke about their utter lack of social life as workers all over Louisiana send in their hours via email, fax, and hand-delivered paper. Their newfound camaraderie sustains them.
“When you’re at your home station and you’ve never been on anything like this, you wonder, ‘How am I going to hold up for 15 hours a day working straight through? But it seems like a normal day when you’re doing it,” said Merritt.