The Human Resource department is where employees turn to with a plethora of questions. With COVID-19 surging and the unknown muddying answers, HR professionals have had to adjust.
Not only is Ashley Cunningham the president of the Bloomington-Normal Human Resource Council, and the HR manager at Four Seasons Health Club in the Twin Cities, she also has three kids at home who are learning remotely.
“It is definitely a struggle to try and juggle everything, at least right now, because this is all so new. I feel like we are just trying to get the hang of it. With computers, there are the technological issues that come into play. It is a different time,” she said.
When Cunningham isn’t juggling her teaching roles, she is supporting her staff.
“From the HR side of it, we’re trying to help our employees the best we can because we have employees who have kids who are going through the same thing that I am,” said Cunningham.
Through this unprecedented time, she asks herself questions: “How can we help support them so that way they can feel like they can work and be a parent, teacher or whatever else they’re having to be right now?”
Also on the front lines is Sam Lewis, the Human Relation Council’s director of workforce readiness and owner of Pridestaff, a staffing and recruiting agency based in Bloomington-Normal.
He, like Cunningham, is preparing game plans to provide the workforce with support.
“This is HR’s time. If we are not in the game, at the table, helping businesses get through this effectively and efficiently in a profitable manner, then we probably don’t have a place,” said Lewis. “This is us doing our job.”
The job now requires a lot of sifting through information and trying to calm fears that may arise from COVID-19.
“There is a lot of information and it seems to be changing at a regular basis and trying to keep up with it, disseminate it correctly and making sure you have all of your people understand what is going on and having all the information they need,” said Cunningham. “There is a lot being thrown out there right now. I really feel for everyone who is going through it.”
Right now, demands on Human Resource departments are divided into two. There are HR people who are dealing with employees who work at home, and there are HR people who are dealing with employees who physically come to work.
“As employees come into the work site, are they taking temperatures? What is the protocol if someone gets a fever?” said Lewis. “There are myriad things you have to think about now that you didn’t think about in the beginning of March.”
Cunningham is in the service industry, which brings different challenges.
“We can’t all just work from home. We need people to be there to help our customers and serve them,” she said.
That means adjusting schedules around employees, including those who may get sick.
“Every situation is different. There isn’t one clear-cut answer for every employee situation that comes up,” said Cunningham. “You really have to look on a case-by-case basis. You want to make sure you are keeping the employee safe. You want to keep the organization safe.”
Many employees are looking for flexibility from their employers right now. What’s the upside of granting it?
“Flexibility, and your staff feeling like they have that support, is ideal. ‘Hey, let’s work through this together, so that way we can determine a win-win for everybody.’ I would hope in most times we could make that happen, but I feel business owners have to be flexible with their staff because we don’t want to lose good people,” said Cunningham.
Cunningham says she’d rather be flexible with her staff because, if she isn’t, she will risk starting all over again.
“Loyalty does play a part of it. If you can be more flexible with your staff now, they are going to remember that and they are going to be more engaged and supportive to the organization long term,” said Cunningham.
Another new part of the job is walking staff through protocols on what to do if they contract COVID-19.
“I’m not happy with the testing thing,” Lewis said. “We have had employees sent for a test on Monday and we don’t know until like Friday what the results are. So when I say they can come back to work, all I know is that they were negative on Monday,” said Lewis. “Now, I do think a game-changer is the saliva test,” he said, referring to the University of Illinois’ new rapid, saliva-based COVID-19 test. It recently won emergency use authorization from the FDA.
“Rapid result testing would help HR like nobody’s business. I would go as far to say if we had widespread rapid results testing, in four weeks we would be done with this COVID thing,” said Lewis. “This testing thing has been very frustrating. It is almost non-consequential.”
And if there are cases in the workplace, will medical privacy be protected?
“HIPPA laws are the stone wall and what we have to do at HR is a rock. HR people are stuck between a rock and a hard place,” said Lewis.
Cunningham said HR cannot share specifics about the person who tests positive, but they can describe timeframes.
“Maybe it was a specific day, a specific range of hours that this person was in the facility. That way it gives people a chance to monitor symptoms,” said Cunningham. “We want to keep that person’s information as confidential as we possibly can.”