HR Strategies Evolve During Pandemic

Worker safety always foremost despite continually changing information and conditions. 

When cold storage employees were deemed essential workers in the early days of the pandemic, companies scrambled to find personal protective equipment and medical guidance to protect their team members. Now that the industry has been through many months of handling business operations as well as added challenges presented by COVID-19, human resource leaders have tweaked and enhanced HR policies and practices to reflect what is needed to keep employees at work and everyone safe.

“Lineage Logistics relied on a decision matrix that presented a number of if-then scenarios to help guide warehouse leaders and human resources to make decisions in line with medical protocol, as well as company policies,” says Christine Rees-Zecha, Director, Operations & Sales Human Resources at Lineage. “We also stay vigilant and continuously update the matrix as new information becomes available.” Examples of matrix updates include how people are paid for time away from work during the pandemic. At first, quarantine time was paid if someone was traveling for personal reasons in, or from, an area with high infection rates. “As we learned more and time went on, team members who decided to travel to high-risk areas that required quarantine upon return would have to use their personal paid time off to cover the absence,” explains Rees-Zecha. FFCRA funds before they needed them, which meant they did not have the coverage when they did need it. “At first, we had little guidance on how to handle essential workers that wanted to stay home due to family needs, but now employees can see the balance of time left to them, as well as the reasons they can claim under FFCRA,” says Ashley Albers, Vice President of Human Resources for Nor-Am Cold Storage “We also relaxed our paid time off (PTO), rules to allow employees to have a negative balance of hours.”


Unexpected Pandemic Fatigue

One factor that was not anticipated in the early weeks of the pandemic was the eventual need to re-educate and remind people about taking precautions outside the work environment, Albers says. The second scenario was when a team member had to quarantine after exposure to someone who contracted the virus. “We originally paid for any scheduled time missed during a 14-day quarantine period. But, as fast-result testing became more readily available and the company was resolute that team members were protected at work, the policy changed and the company paid for scheduled days of work missed within a 10-day period after a positive test,” Rees-Zecha says. All scenarios in, and updates made to, the if-then matrix were reviewed, approved and were often suggested by Lineage’s medical advisor, she adds. Some companies were able to offer team members paid time off if ill with COVID-19 or to care for family members under provisions of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA). However, initial fear of the virus meant that some employees used “We thought everyone would take precautions seriously until the pandemic was over, but we didn’t expect it to last so long and create pandemic fatigue,” Albers recalls. “Once people got over their initial fear of the virus, they tended to relax, which meant that although they were well-protected at work, they began to have parties and invite friends to their homes.” Although a company cannot dictate behavior outside work, safety discussions included reminders to make good choices outside work.

Requests for time off were tricky, admits Lori Cogit, Vice President of Human Resources for RLS Logistics. “Our paid time off policy remains the same. But obviously, people were not taking vacations or traveling during most of 2020, and our carryover policy only allows a maximum carryover of 40 hours of PTO, so we had to flex the rules,” she says. “We allow our employees, in some circumstances, to carryover additional hours that would have been forfeited, and our managers created opportunities for them take their time off without fear of falling behind – even in areas where we had some staffing shortages.”

Following Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines when determining how to handle employees who tested positive, showed symptoms or were in contact with someone that has COVID, was an important part of process. To make sure that the most up-todate guidelines were followed, everyone is required to notify HR immediately,” Cogit notes. “We take over the process to ensure compliance with all policies and procedures, confidentiality of protected employee information, direct access and communication with our occupational healthcare partner, compliance with paperwork requirements and one point of contact with our employee.” An added benefit of this process is the removal of the burden of managing the process from managers who are typically not well versed in the pandemic-related protocols, she adds.


Mobile Clinics Provide Support

In the early days of the crisis, a shortage of testing facilities hampered efforts to protect team members and keep them working safely, so Lineage Logistics provided mobile medical clinics for facilities in what were considered hotspots. “We were in a situation where team members had to wait several days to get a test, then wait several days to get results, which meant they could be out of the workplace for weeks,” says Rees-Zecha. “To reduce the burden on our team members, cut back the testing timeline and provide uninterrupted service to our customers, we contracted with a company to provide medical trailers and staff at four locations to serve our facilities in those regions.” In addition to providing quick access to testing, the relationship also gave Lineage access to a medical director who could advise on policies related to COVID-19, and the clinics were a visible reminder of the company’s commitment to protecting team members.

Now that access to testing is simpler and more widespread, two of the mobile clinics have closed, but the two in heavily populated regions remain onsite, says Rees-Zecha. “Flu shots and COVID-19 testing is available to team members and their families until further notice.”


Recruitment Never Rests

As cold storage companies were looking for ways to keep facilities fully staffed, Nor-Am opened a new facility in August 2020. “Luckily, the number of cases was low in Dodge City when we held our hiring event and there were few restrictions on gatherings,” says Albers. Social distancing, masks and sanitizer stations were used to promote safety at the event, which led to hiring the 75 people needed for the facility. “We paid close attention to numbers of cases and local restrictions – this event worked in August but would not have been possible in November.” As all companies turned to online recruitment tools and virtual interviews to fill positions, Albers was surprised initially to discover that one of the first things people ask about are the safety protocols. “I thought that requiring masks, temperature checks and other safetyprotocols would scare people, but everyone has viewed our strategy as a positive.” 


Transparent Communication

In some instances, Lineage was forced to consider a process for furloughing team members – something the company had never done – due to customers making significant shifts in their supply chain operations, says Rees-Zecha. “Our first steps were to eliminate overtime work and cut hours so team members could keep most of their paycheck,” she says. “Critical to the process was our communication strategy. We were clear with our team members up front about the expected length of the furlough – especially as slowdowns continued – as well as the retention of their benefits during time furloughed.” During the furlough period, team members kept their benefits including health insurance and were allowed to “catch up” on payments when they returned to work by making partial payments over time, says Rees-Zecha. “The furlough program, mobile medical clinics and safety protocols that evolved throughout the pandemic are an example of how cold storage companies need to be nimble and ready to adapt to business and team member needs.”

There were a number of important lessons learned in human resource departments throughout the cold storage industry, says Cogit. She points out that everyone learned that, “Despite the stereotype, HR is not black and white; at least, not anymore. The only way for HR to truly be a strategic partner is to understand and be comfortable with the land of grey.” 

SHERYL S. JACKSON is a freelance writer based in Alpharetta, Georgia, who specializes in industry issues and trends. 

Source:  Cold Facts Jan/Feb 2021 issue