The talent acquisition team at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene had to overcome incredible obstacles as the agency played its critical part in combating the deadly COVID-19 virus over the last 22 months.
The stalwart group of recruiting professionals implemented dynamic sourcing strategies to find a diverse pool of qualified candidates while having to quickly adapt to working from home and adjust to remote and virtual recruitment practices.
The recruitment team shared with SHRM Online the department’s challenges and successes and how the pandemic became a catalyst for the implementation of unconventional recruitment practices.
SHRM Online: Tell me about some of the biggest recruiting challenges the department faced during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Recruitment Team: As the leading public health agency in New York City, the Health Department provided the first line of defense in controlling the spread of this deadly virus. Recruitment became extremely challenging. It was an extremely tumultuous time for New York City, which was deemed the epicenter of the pandemic’s first wave in the U.S. As the agency activated its Incident Command System, wherein current staff was reassigned to COVID-19 response positions, the Health Department had multiple high-priority vacancies to fill in order to sustain the agency’s daily operations and emergency preparedness goals.
Additionally, due to the pandemic’s fiscal impact, New York City agencies were initially subjected to a temporary hiring freeze. In addition to these pandemic-specific challenges, the Health Department—like many government agencies—hires within the context of a highly structured civil service process and citywide union negotiations. While these systems importantly provide employees with job security and excellent benefits including comprehensive medical coverage and pensions, they do restrict the agency’s ability to offer salaries competitive with the private sector.
SHRM Online: What types of roles do you normally hire for, and which proved to be most challenging during the pandemic?
Recruitment Team: We hire for a broad spectrum of roles such as nurses, pharmacists, health educators, community health workers, economists, epidemiologists, data analysts, veterinarians, and restaurant inspectors. We also hire for a range of positions to support Health Department operations, including accountants, police officers, IT staff, and attorneys.
The job vacancies that have proven most challenging to fill during the pandemic include laboratory microbiologists to implement rapid COVID-19 PCR [polymerase chain reaction] testing; disease detectives and epidemiologists to investigate outbreaks and break chains of COVID-19 [transmission]; registered nurses to deliver vaccinations; community outreach workers to help support vaccination in communities displaying hesitancy; social workers; and IT specialists.
SHRM Online: How was the HR/talent acquisition function impacted by the pandemic?
Recruitment Team: During public health emergencies, the majority of the agency’s workforce is activated to assume an emergency preparedness role separate from their normal daily role—yet routine daily operational functions must continue. Accordingly, several members of the HR team were tasked with additional responsibilities outside their usual roles. At the same time, the scope of talent acquisition increased, with targeted recruitment for emergent COVID-19 public health priorities, on top of recruitment services for the routine daily operational goals and public health objectives of the agency of over 6,000 employees.
For the majority of the pandemic, the Health Department’s recruitment operations shifted to a remote-work format wherever possible to promote social distancing and employee safety, and recruitment and talent acquisition services were able to successfully occur virtually. In September 2021, New York City’s mayor announced a return to in-person work for all staff except those requiring accommodation.