Viewpoint: HR During a Pandemic in a Retirement Home

Paul Falcone By Paul Falcone May 6, 2020
two women in retirement home, in face masks

The Motion Picture & Television Fund (MPTF) has a storied Hollywood past and has become a legend in its own right over the past 99 years. Founded in 1921 by actors Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin, among others, to assist people who work in the motion picture and television industries and to provide care for them after retirement, MPTF will celebrate its centennial next year. We've been home to countless actors and behind-the-camera talent in their later years. Today, our 450 employees support about 225 on-campus residents and thousands more throughout the greater Los Angeles area with independent and assisted living, skilled nursing, memory care and behavioral health, community social services, and palliative care.

The events leading up to the coronavirus outbreak are no different for MPTF residents and employees than for any other organization. What is different is the vulnerability of our population and our leadership's response to a challenge with no precedent.

"We've definitely been at the point of pure creation in terms of leading through this without policy or past practice to fall back on," said CEO Bob Beitcher. "Retirement homes and hospitals were likely hit hardest by this virus because of residents' ages and underlying health conditions, and it was an incredible challenge to move forward without a road map when so much was at stake."

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Coronavirus and COVID-19

Getting Ahead of the Problem

MPTF's initial strategy was to set the pace for other residential care facilities for the elderly. "Our goal was to become a safety island, a place where people could come to seek refuge from the virus, which in late February and early March was a mystery to many, including the government and the medical community," Beitcher said. "We immediately restricted access to the campus, including family member visits, and assigned residents to their rooms, canceling all social functions and communal dining. Corporate employees in finance, IT, marketing and legal began working remotely in accordance with local stay-at-home requirements for nonessential personnel. And employees who were left with little work were reassigned: Lifeguards became front gate screeners taking temperatures and asking essential visitors and employees detailed questions regarding their health and travel history; activities staff became the residents' personal shoppers; and the wellness manager oversaw the newly erected onsite child care program. In short, we had to reinvent ourselves very quickly in light of the crisis and its threat to our elderly community."

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

"At times like this, you can't overcommunicate," Beitcher said. "Employees, residents, residents' families, volunteers and so many other groups we touch couldn't get enough information, and we used everything at our disposal to provide real-time feedback as much as possible. E-mail, our intranet portal, robocalls, posters—you name it. Everything, that is, except for MBWA—Management by Walking Around. That was no longer on the table. But it all had to start with keeping the management team in the loop and on point."

A COVID-19 task force was immediately formed and met three days per week to address the newest challenges and align MPTF's responses. HR's role was at the forefront of the task force, addressing employees' fears, confusion and illnesses and the myriad policy changes and resources available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the California Department of Public Health, L.A. County Public Health, and others.

New weekly newsletters, updates and reminders kept employees feeling in the know. Small-group virtual meetings in partnership with the union helped open the lines of communication, especially to the real-time concerns that employees faced, including the fear of bringing the virus home to their families.

We created a COVID isolation unit for residents infected with the virus and decorated it with paper cranes—Japanese symbols of health and good fortune. Our wellness manager moved her meditation programs online via Zoom and distributed essential oils. Incorporating employee suggestions into our go-forward plan created a strong sense of community throughout the crisis. People were certainly afraid, but being heard and contributing ideas that could be implemented were critical in lessening their anxiety.

Small Wins Make a Big Difference

The HR team listened to all questions and suggestions. Employees asked for interim vacation cash-outs to access much-needed funds, as well as free lunch in the cafeteria for the duration of the viral outbreak. Those working in the isolation unit asked for a two-week paid self-quarantine period once their assignment was complete, and we were fortunate to be able to grant these requests. In fact, those who volunteered to work in the isolation unit were required to remain assigned there until the unit was deactivated, so we paid for nearby hotel housing and meals since some employees did not want to risk going home after work and potentially infecting their family members.

The two greatest challenges through March and April were definitely staffing and acquisition of personal protective equipment (PPE). We were experiencing health care staffing shortages well before the coronavirus outbreak, and the increased demand for health care workers in light of the pandemic made staffing a critical priority.

"We definitely needed to get creative, and, to that end, we had some very willing and able partners supporting our recruitment team, including our local union, the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West (SEIU-UHW), and the National Guard," Beitcher said. SEIU partnered with MPTF to identity displaced workers at other member hospitals who were furloughed or laid off and able to assume hours at the campus. The National Guard assigned a physician assistant, registered nurse, medics and administrators to support MPTF through the pandemic. And the recruitment world changed on a dime, as Zoom interviews replaced face-to-face meetings, courts closed and background checks stalled, and pre-employment physicals were suspended. Further, necessity became the mother of invention: As home health and hospice care workers became available elsewhere because of quarantine restrictions, we were able to source a whole new talent pool of temporary workers to get us through the surge.

PPE likewise represented an ongoing challenge. For example, MPTF was well-stocked with N-95 masks, gloves and goggles, but gowns were in short supply everywhere. No stone was left unturned as new leads were pursued—many of which didn't pan out—to ensure that workers had appropriate gowning materials.

"Ultimately, we had to rely on cloth gowns until paper gowns became more readily available," Beitcher said. "But we trained our employees on proper doffing and donning techniques and ensured that they were well-prepared until paper gowns became more available." In fact, employee training became our lifeline when we created the isolation unit. Classes were made available all day, every day, to cover all three shifts. Facts and education became the key tools for overcoming fear and apprehension.

Lessons Learned and the Healing Process

"It's probably safe to say that we reinvented ourselves a number of times over the past few months," Beitcher said with pride.

Indeed, the team learned to expect the unexpected and demonstrated that we could pivot away from our original plans as new data became available and keep our MPTF community—employees, residents, residents' families, volunteers and community members—informed of the sometimes overwhelming challenges we faced. We learned that remote work works. Our mantra and part of our mission statement is "Taking Care of Our Own," meaning the entertainment industry members who rely on us in times of need. What we realized is how much broader this circle has been expanded and how much richer we are for the relationships with our management team, our heroic and selfless employees, the union, the National Guard, and so many others who helped us and continue to support us through these unprecedented times.

Most important, we learned to heal. We lost six residents to this terrible virus—whether in our isolation unit or at a nearby hospital. "These are people we've come to know and respect, some of them for years," Beitcher said. "Some were the lions of their day in the entertainment industry, people bigger than life, while others were humble doers who made the movie and TV magic happen behind the scenes. They will all be missed."

In learning to heal, we accessed the resources and online counseling of our employee assistance program provider. We're also fortunate to have our own team of social workers and chaplains who make up part of our palliative care team. We tended to the spiritual and emotional needs of our employees as thoughtfully and as empathetically as we could.

A Continuing Tale and Our Way Forward

MPTF is a unique organization dedicated to the needs of a special industry. We're a nonprofit that provides our residents and community members with the physical, emotional, financial and spiritual support they need. Yet MPTF is all of us. All organizations have their own special niche, ongoing community relations and goodwill developed over time through their employees' countless efforts. These organizations will be there for their workers through this tragedy and the healing that will be necessary once this is all over.

Each of us plays our part, both organizationally and individually. Maybe a challenge of this magnitude can bring us all closer together to learn new skills and gain confidence that we can work together to make a real difference no matter what the challenge. Maybe it can show us that we're stronger when we come from selfless leadership and a willingness to be there for one another.

Paul Falcone ( is CHRO at the Motion Picture & Television Fund in Los Angeles and a frequent contributor at He is the author of many top-selling books, including 101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees, 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems, 96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire and 2600 Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews. 



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