Hiring and Retaining Employees in the Time of COVID-19

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Fullsteam Brewery employees
Fullsteam Brewery managed to keep staff – including Ivan Schell, Matt Salinas, Amanda Scherle, Hannah Parris and Amber Milton – employed through the Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loans.

By Brandee Gruener | Photography by Cornell Watson

Jen D’Agostino and her family packed up their home in the Washington, D.C., area in February so that she could start her new job as the vice president of talent acquisition at RTI International in Research Triangle Park. Her husband, Avery Macierowski, planned to search for a new job. Their 20-month-old daughter, Cora Macierowski, was enrolled in a day care in Chapel Hill.

One month later, Cora wasn’t in day care anymore, Macierowski became a stay-at-home dad, and D’Agostino was looking for prenatal care during a pandemic. In this strange new world, D’Agostino’s employer played a part in recommending doctors and babysitters, helping her strategize time off and maternity leave, and keeping her connected with a community of other employees.

“The challenge whenever you move to a new place is creating a new support system of friends and neighbors,” D’Agostino said in early September. “The employee community [at RTI] is pretty awesome, and people are very generous with their time and support. Even just today, my team threw me and another expecting mom a great virtual baby shower with wacky baby games and fun virtual backgrounds.”

Employees had to adjust to the new normal of working during a pandemic. Those operating from home had to adapt to a disconnected world of Zoom meetings. Those whose jobs required going into work had to weigh the possibility of exposure to the COVID-19 virus against the benefits of staying employed. And working parents had challenges with managing child care and virtual schooling while trying to stay productive. 

Amanda Scherle, one of Fullsteam's employees
Amanda Scherle, who leads packaging at Fullsteam, with a pallet of her finished work that is ready for refrigeration.

Durham employers had to do their best to be accommodating and flexible so that they can keep employees on board and hire more talent when necessary. Jobs began to return this summer; though local unemployment was still high at 7.9% in July, about 19,000 jobs had returned to the Durham-Chapel Hill region since the labor market bottomed out in April. 

Hiring talent happens to be the focus of D’Agostino’s job. With the exception of essential workers like janitors, security and scientists who use the labs, the RTI campus was not scheduled to open before Jan. 7 at the earliest. Even then, management was not requiring anyone to return. In the meantime, they have hired about 150 people in the Triangle, primarily to staff new research projects. Interviews took place over Zoom, with candidates facing the prospect of not meeting their co-workers in person for months. 

“We have to make hiring decisions without actually meeting them, and that takes some getting used to,” D’Agostino said. “Everyone has been making those adjustments and figuring out the new normal of how to get together virtually.” RTI began hosting virtual socials for new hires and assigned a buddy to each new employee to make sure they could get to know one another. They also allowed flexible work schedules (some employees worked from 5 to 9 a.m. and then returned after the school day ended) and reimbursed expenses for office equipment at home. Somehow, everyone had to make the new reality work.

“I think all of our employees have had to get really creative with this new work-life balance,” D’Agostino said. 

Amber Milton, one of Fullsteam's employees
Amber Milton pulls a pallet of beer through Fullsteam’s warehouse to refrigeration. The brewery stepped up its canning operation for fans who preferred drinking at home.

Fidelity Investments used similar approaches to support employees during the pandemic, according to Market Leader Robert Merdes. While more than 90% of its employees worked remotely after its offices closed, the company added about 100 employees in the Triangle.

“Our goal is to make every new employee immediately feel like they are a part of the Fidelity community,” Merdes said. New employees were brought on virtually and connected with a peer buddy and hiring manager. 

The company also added more time off for issues with child care or recovery from COVID-19, eliminated copays for telemedicine appointments, set up a referral system for COVID-19 tests, and held a kids’ camp over the summer. Once the school year started, Fidelity worked to help arrange backup child care and elder care for employees who needed it. 

“We know that working parents in particular are crunched for time and resources,” Merdes said. “Fidelity has responded quickly to support the total lives of our employees – helping them both in and outside of work regardless of whether or not they test positive with COVID-19, which is an approach that not all companies are able to take during this challenging time.”

Fullsteam Brewer Jon Simpson
Brewer Jon Simpson working on a batch of Fullsteam’s beer. “All the staff have been in kind of varying levels in their interest, need and ability to get back to work,” said Fullsteam Chief Executive Optimist Sean Lilly Wilson.

Businesses That Work With the Public Face  Safety Concerns

All employers that Durham Magazine spoke with implemented cleaning protocols, masks and social distancing for employees in the workplace. But businesses like doctors’ offices, restaurants and hotels interact with the public, making protection from exposure an even greater concern.

When Dr. Jenny Bennett opened Urban Tails Veterinary Hospital on the Golden Belt Campus in June, she lost a part-time vet assistant who did not want to relocate during the pandemic. The son of a friend gladly stepped in; he had just graduated from Durham School of the Arts and wanted experience in the workforce. Bennett’s full-time employees were all former colleagues she had recruited, and none had children at home. 

Bennett owns a “fear-free” practice, with animal-soothing music, cat-specific rooms, lots of treats, and comfy sofas and cat shelves in place of exam tables. Not as many experienced the cozy environment as Bennett had hoped. Downtown foot traffic was low, and clients couldn’t stop in just to get their dogs a treat. With many appointments virtual and only one client allowed inside at a time, employees did not always wear masks when clients weren’t in the building. 

Then, in July, Bennett had to shut down the practice for 10 days. Her teenage son, who worked at a grocery store, was diagnosed with COVID-19. “If I wasn’t the one who’d been directly exposed, we could have stayed open,” said Bennett, the only veterinarian in the practice.

“As far as I know, the rest of us managed to dodge it,” she added. “Now we all wear masks inside all the time.”

While business started off a little slower than she wanted, Bennett would like to build up her client base and hire another doctor in a year.

At another downtown business, Fullsteam Brewery’s CEO (Chief Executive Optimist) Sean Lilly Wilson had his own concerns. The brewery and kitchen closed in March. They stayed on life support with curbside service for two months until they reopened at 50% capacity. Wilson had to let a couple of managers go but managed to keep most staff employed with the Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loans. Tavern revenues have since become “nearish normal,” Wilson said. But not every customer wanted to return, and the same was true of his employees.

“All the staff have been in kind of varying levels in their interest, need and ability to get back to work,” Wilson said. As someone who had a kidney transplant and is immunocompromised, Wilson felt he should be flexible. They have outdoor seating set up in the alleyway, and a big, open space with seating in the building. But he does not work in the bar area because of his health condition.

“I feel like it would be hypocritical of me if we didn’t accommodate everybody’s concerns,” Wilson said.Meanwhile, Wilson stepped up his canning operation for Fullsteam fans who preferred drinking at home. He was looking ahead to an expansion at Boxyard RTP, a trendy “micro-shopping” development of shipping containers expected to house 15 retailers and restaurants, that was originally slated to open in spring 2020. Wilson planned to add 10 part-time staff to his team. Perhaps the circumstances of the pandemic will change by next spring (Boxyard’s new targeted completion timeframe), but fortunately for Wilson, his staff and his customers, seating will be in an open-air courtyard.

Diversity and Inclusion Receive More Attention in Hiring

Employers like to say that diversity and inclusion have always been considerations during hiring. But the protests surrounding social injustice brought a national reckoning over how racism affects opportunities in America. 

Wilson said he has long been aware that the craft brewing industry historically was overwhelmingly male and white. He said Fullsteam has made progress in better representing the population of Durham, but they still have work to do. They have made some changes in the vendors they use and are “working even harder to try to push diversity within hiring processes and make sure that we don’t have any blind spots in that,” Wilson said. “If you’re not careful, you can miss out on great opportunities to bring people in.”

D’Agostino said they had the same conversations at RTI and planned to bring in consultants to analyze the hiring process and see where they could improve. “Diversity and inclusion have always been a focus for us, but I don’t think you can go through the last few months without taking another look,” she said.

Merdes said that they have made measurable progress at Fidelity. The company’s hires in 2019 were 13% more diverse than the rest of their workforce, and they plan to continue building on that success by expanding recruiting, scrutinizing the language in job postings and advertising on diverse job boards. The company also announced the appointment of a new head of global diversity and inclusion in July. “It is a strategically important function that helps us build a connected and collaborative workforce that reflects the broader society,” he said. 

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