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Byline: Barbara Correa Staff Writer

War anxiety has sent employers across Southern California scrambling to ease concerns of workers already shellshocked by economic uncertainty and fear of a terrorist backlash.

Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Fontana, one of the Inland Empire's largest employers, is sending its 4,500 workers electronic newsletters about coping in uncertain times, cultural sensitivity, security awareness and supporting military families.

Velvet Durano, owner of Massage Direct, a corporate chair massage therapy company in Manhattan Beach, signed two new companies the week the war broke out. The increased demand was initially due to general economic doldrums, she said, plus the added stress of war. Durano massages executives in their business suits for about 15 minutes in a special chair.

In a sort of delayed benefit, employees from accounting and law firms in the region are redeeming massage gift certificates distributed by their bosses over the holidays. ``In the last three or four days, we're seeing a lot of gift certificates getting redeemed,'' said Mark Chatow, owner of The Massage Therapy Center in West Los Angeles. ``Business is up 20 percent from a year ago.''

Paul Guditis, president of chair massage company Body Charge, agrees that business is brisk, though he attributes that as much to tax season stress and film production crunch time as to war.

While it's not offering massages, regional rail carrier Metrolink did issue personal survival packs to its 200 employees across the region days before the war broke out.

The packs contain enough food, water, heating and lighting mechanisms to sustain one person for a 72-hour period, said Sharon Gavin, Metrolink spokeswoman. ``We've all been trained on building security should we need to evacuate, but we have also provided for a situation where there's a stay-in-place alert. We have provisions in case we need to stay in the office,' she said.

In addition to the personal emergency kits, Metrolink has stocked offices and maintenance facilities in Pomona, downtown Los Angeles, Lancaster and San Bernardino with toiletries, food and water to allow staff stuck in the office to stay there if they have to.

Most midsize to large companies are sending out electronic alerts to employees to remind them about emergency contact phone numbers, fire drill procedures and emergency contingency plans. They are also encouraging workers to take advantage of employee assistance counseling programs that most employees pay for but frequently aren't aware of.

``We're going to be sending out letters to families reminding them that service is available,'' said Dr. Robert Scott, staff psychologist for the 3,200-employee Los Angeles Fire Department.

``The personnel are pretty stress-resistant, but when real significant events happen, we do see delayed reactions. As the course of war moves through, there is a higher risk that some statement from the terrorists will come. For the families of firefighters, they may start to get anxious as the threat levels notch up.''

He also is advising employees to reduce the amount of war-related TV their kids watch and to keep exercising to relieve stress. He added that the LAFD is also going to be recommending discussion groups where firefighters can express their concerns.

Community Action, a nonprofit provider of employee counseling based in Redlands, is seeing more referrals in recent weeks from corporate human resources managers concerned about employees that may not be handling war stress very well.

``We've have had physical altercations in lunchrooms'' over the war, said Bob Bruner, chief executive officer at the nonprofit, which serves 150 clients across the region. ``Managers are reporting employees they think are more stressed out.''

The increased usage doesn't represent any cost increase to employers, who pay about $2 a month per employee for the service, he said. So far, Bruner hasn't received any requests for special brown-bag group sessions, but he expects he'll be getting those soon. After 9-11, Community Action dispatched counselors to client's offices to give seminars titled ``The Violence That Surrounds Us.''

At some companies, it's business as usual, with no special plans for helping employees de-stress.

``I wish I could tell you we're doing something, but the reality is, no,'' said Jerry Harpstrite, marketing director at Farmers & Merchants Bank in Long Beach. ``Everyone is watching and waiting and our managers are pretty much doing business as usual.'' There isn't a need to beef up security, he added, because, being a bank, Farmers is always at a high security level.

Other employers also reported security levels haven't changed with the latest conflict in Iraq because security has remained at a very high level ever since 9-11.

Warner Bros. has had emergency stocks of flashlights and food, armed guards and bomb-sniffing dogs in place at its Burbank compound since the 1994 Northridge Earthquake and 9-11, respectively, said spokeswoman Barbara Brogliatti.

Southern California Gas Co., an affiliate of Sempra Energy, is advising its 6,000 Southern Californian employees to create a contingency plan with their families in the event of emergency. ``If you've been putting it off, thinking it's never going to happen to you, now is the time,'' said Stephanie Donovan, a spokeswoman for the company.

Companies with reservists on staff say they are paying their employees while they're overseas. On top of that, United Parcel Service, whose West Coast hub is located in Ontario, is continuing life insurance coverage and health care benefits for families of both full-time and part-time employees on military duty.

``We're paying our reservists,'' said Barbara Bronson Gray, a spokeswoman for Thousand Oaks biotech giant Amgen. Of 5,800 employees, about 100 are reservists, and just three of those are on active military duty. Other than that, employees are encouraged to check newscasts online or on televisions in conference rooms and common areas.

Freedom to watch the news may be the best thing companies can do for frazzled employees, said Robert ``Rocky'' Mills, senior vice president at brokerage firm RBC Dain Rauscher's Woodland Hills office.

``The up-to-the-minute coverage we get causes stress. but also relieves it to know that we are not getting annihilated,'' he said. He's also aware of being more sensitive to employees who may have a loved one on active duty in the Persian Gulf.

``This morning I walked by our head of operations, and I could see she was a tad distraught,'' said Mills. ``Her husband's in the military and he's on the Kuwaiti border. But she's going about her job.''


3 photos


(1 -- color) Big-screen televisions in a lounge at Amgen's Newbury Park facility allow employees to keep abreast of developments in the war in Iraq.

Evan Yee/Staff Photographer

(2 -- color) Morning Star Harmon of Massage Direct gives an in-office massage to Cinesite employee Dennis Solano. The mini rubdown aims to ease stress.

John Lazar/Staff Photographer

(3 -- color) Metrolink public information specialist Eliza Shamshian tries out a flashlight that's among the items included in the emergency kits provided to Metrolink employees.

Hans Gutknecht/Staff Photographer
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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 6, 2003

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