MeetingsNet’s 2021 Changemakers list recognizes outstanding meeting professionals for their efforts to move their organizations and the industry forward in unique and positive ways. Find the full 2021 Changemakers list here.
Michelle Dunnick, MBA, CPCE
Director of Events and Investor Relations
United Way of Southeast Louisiana
For creating programs to provide free legal services and low-cost mental wellness services for former and current hospitality workers during the COVID-19 pandemic
As the grip of the pandemic began to tighten last spring, putting in-person events on hold, Michelle Dunnick jumped at the chance to lead the Hospitality Cares Pandemic Response Fund created by the United Way and the Louisiana Hospitality Foundation. The program was an offshoot of United Way of Southeast Louisiana’s Hospitality Cares program, which launched in 2017 to provide hospitality workers in crisis with emergency grants of up to $2,500 to help with housing, medical, and utility costs.
Dunnick began by taking an informal survey to determine employers’ most critical concerns. Legal aid and mental wellness support for their employees were at the top of the list. She then reached out to two community partners, Southeast Louisiana Legal Services and Loyola Counseling Center & Education.
A grant from the Pandemic Response Fund allowed Southeast Louisiana Legal Services to hire a staff attorney to handle hospitality workers’ cases, which ranged from unemployment benefit claims to eviction notices. Grant funding helped Loyola Counseling Center, which already had a program for hospitality workers, dedicate more time and resources to it and ensure that no one was turned away due to financial constraints. Rates are on a sliding scale and can be as low as $10 per session.
Dunnick’s program provided over $2.4 million in critical funding to help more than 4,800 hospitality workers in her organization’s seven-parish service area.
While the pandemic fund is now closed, the legal aid and mental wellness assistance programs will continue through the summer. “We will then reevaluate to see if that is where our efforts are most needed,” she says.
“My hope is to see our industry get back on its feet, and a large part of that is taking care of our mental health, which means that we need to talk openly about our mental wellness,” Dunnick says. “We saw the impact after Hurricane Katrina, and we knew that pandemic-related stress and job loss would take a similar toll on our industry.”
In addition to continuing her work with Hospitality Cares, Dunnick wants to tackle the anticipated shortage of workers as hotels and restaurants return. “The knee-jerk reaction is to blame unemployment benefits. But I blame the low hourly wage,” she said. “Why would you return to your three-dollar-per-hour-wage-plus-tips job as a server and risk your own health when you could become a realtor or work from home in customer service?” Also on her to-do list: raising awareness of sex trafficking.
Dunnick’s main change management strategy: clear communication. “Over the past year, I have presented to hotel GMs, restaurant owners, and human-resource professionals to communicate the resources that our unique program offers. We then encourage these industry leaders to share the resources with their current and former employees.”
Dunnick serves as treasurer for the National Association for Catering and Events and will run for vice president this summer. She recently completed the Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity in the Workplace Certificate offered by the University of South Florida Muma College of Business.