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Weather closures felt tribal wide

With the long winter season in full swing, its effects are being felt tribal wide in the form of operational shutdowns and delays. During the past month alone, the Oneida Nation has experienced three tribal shutdowns and multiple delays across several departments due to inclement weather. Oneida Nation management made these decisions in the interest of safety for Oneida citizens and employees.

“It’s imperative the organization is thinking about the health, safety, and welfare of the employees and everybody else that’s impacted by the weather,” Oneida Nation Chairman Tehassi Hill said. “Having employees come out in the extreme cold or heavy snow would be a bit much to ask so it’s important to understand that we’re shutting down for their safety.”

One thing that is difficult to accomplish in these situations is the rescheduling of governmental meetings. “Governmental schedules are often done so far in advance, and some almost a year in advance, that with these shutdowns we need to scramble to get things addressed in a timely manner,” Hill said. “Our business needs continue and it still needs to be conducted when we get back to a regular work day. During the recent General Tribal Council (GTC) meeting cancellation the storm didn’t get here as early as predicted, but we have people that come from all over the state and we took the safety precaution because it’s winter and it was at night.”

The financial impact on the tribe due to multiple weather-related shutdowns can be, but aren’t always, negative. “The weather impacts are incidental as they usually delay spending,” Oneida Nation CFO Larry Barton said. “However, persistent weather events in succession, like on weekends, have had a measurable impact on meeting budget like in the winter of 2013-2014. Impacts to the economy can’t be understated in sectors such as vehicle repairs and lost productivity for employers.”

While the Oneida Nation Gaming Division and its revenues have been affected by weather-related shutdowns in years past, that doesn’t appear to be the case during this recent spate of events. Gaming revenues are currently exceeding budget therefore it would be conjecture to correlate weather as having a negative impact on revenue, Barton said. Assistant Gaming CFO Chad Fuss agrees. “It’s no secret that we don’t make as much on these types of days,” Fuss said. “But at the same time, we still make a positive net profit on those days so it makes sense to continue our operations and contribute as much as we can back to the nation.”

Each year various Oneida Nation operations face shutdowns due to extreme weather, but there are a few critical divisions that never fully cease operations. Oneida’s Main Casino is one of them, and this sometimes leads to concerned feedback from employees. “One of the things we’re working with our different departments on is this perception that we don’t care about our employees’ safety,” Fuss said. “Some of these concerns come directly from communications that say, ‘Because we care about the safety of our employees, we are closing down.’ Therefore, when we don’t close down, but other areas do, our employees think we don’t care about their safety because we’re still open. But that’s simply not true.”

“We have gaming customers that get stranded at the airport and at the Radisson,” Oneida Gaming General Manager Louise Cornelius said. “That is why we maintain operations here. Our reception area had approximately 300 calls during this last snow day from customers asking if we were open. Last week we also experienced one of the iciest days on record, yet when I left work at 5:20 p.m. we had 43 Gold casino members playing here. People don’t stop coming just because it’s snowing out. I think we’ve done a good job with decision-making in terms of what needs to happen during emergency weather conditions.”

Fuss addressed gaming’s flexible approach to employee call-ins on severe weather days as well as employee concerns about being penalized for calling in. “When we’ve had prior extreme conditions, employees have not been penalized in the past,” Fuss said. “Our employees get very generous vacation and personal time from the tribe and that personal time is for use in these kinds of instances. If you are a good planner you will never be penalized so our employees do have options.”

Perhaps the nation’s most important department during harsh weather is Oneida’s Department of Public Works (DPW). While numerous divisions within the tribe close for safety reasons, it’s DPW’s 15-member Groundskeeping crew that continues to operate around-the-clock throughout the reservation ensuring snow is removed and its 55 roads and sixty-one properties are plowed. These snow removal crews often work 16-hour shifts up to 65 hours in some weeks. In cases of extreme snowstorms an additional 20 people from other DPW areas assist.

Overseen by Suzanna Jordan and Redmon Danforth, the snow removal crews are “on-call” and must be available to report to work at any time of the day or night, DPW Division Director Jacque Boyle wrote in a statement. “Very few employees request vacation or personal time during these months knowing the responsibility they have to ensure the safety of our Nation’s employees and members,” Boyle wrote. “All the employees involved with the snow removal put their personal lives on hold for the duration of the winter months which allows everyone to have the access they need to the roads and properties we are responsible for.”

DPW’s working conditions are tough as the work is often conducted at night, during sub-zero windchills, heavy snowfall, drifting and ice-packed roads, Boyle wrote. However, that does not stop these crews from stepping up and doing what is needed to address these storms as efficiently and safely as possible.