NYC Health Agency HR at the Epicenter of the Pandemic

Recruiters share challenges, successes hiring during a crisis

Roy Maurer By Roy Maurer January 13, 2022
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NYC Health Agency HR at the Epicenter of the Pandemic
New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Central HR Business Partner Recruitment Team
Bureau of Human Resources and Labor Relations.
​Included in the picture: Heather Badger, William Camacho, Sean McFarlane, José Mercado, Rhina Gelin, Nikki Neysmith, Carol Pope, Linda Raymond, Christopher Bhairo, Elmer Maldonado.

​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 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 were reassigned to COVID-19 response positions, the Health Department had multiple high-priority vacancies to fill in order to sustain the agency's daily operational 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.

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Coronavirus and COVID-19

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 an accommodation.

SHRM Online: How did you overcome these challenges?

Recruitment Team: I am proud to say that many of our team members are Certified Diversity Recruiters that are trained in Advanced Internet Recruitment Strategies (AIRS) and have achieved both the White Belt and Green Belt in Lean Six Sigma. This has elevated the level of human resources training and has provided us with a competitive advantage in skillfully navigating and overcoming the various recruitment challenges, while also eliminating redundant recruitment practices and strategically focusing on more efficient operational goals and objectives that have increased our employer brand recognition within the health care industry.

SHRM Online: What kinds of unconventional recruitment tactics and strategies did you find were successful?

Recruitment Team:

  • In collaboration with the agency's Office of External Affairs, launching social media campaigns via LinkedIn and Twitter to promote positions.
  • Circulating vacancies to the faculty members of medical schools and academic partners that offer accredited programs in relevant fields, as well as societies and professional associations (e.g., the American Society of Clinical Pathology).
  • Attending and hosting virtual career fairs, information sessions and resume workshops. Virtual career fairs were a particularly important strategy for filling our public health sanitarian vacancies that were fundamental to conducting COVID-19 inspections in dining establishments and day care centers, and to finding lab technologists for PCR testing.
  • Posting on various diversity-focused job sites.
  • Networking with community-based organizations, elected officials and their constituents.
  • Establishing a collaborative networking and recruitment partnership with the New York State Department of Education to obtain a list of licensed health care professionals across multiple disciplines (e.g., social workers, nurses, laboratory technologists and physicians' assistants) within and around New York City. With support from our data analytics team, we were able to promote relevant COVID-19-related vacancies to thousands of these health care professionals by disseminating e-mail blasts, successfully filling many of our vacancies.

SHRM Online: What were some of your biggest accomplishments as a team during the pandemic?

Recruitment Team: In response to the immediate threat posed by COVID-19, we organized a COVID Disease Detective Hiring Event within 48 hours and hosted approximately 110 candidates. The primary responsibility of disease detectives is to investigate case reports of suspected and confirmed communicable diseases, including COVID-19. The Health Department made 41 offers on the spot, and the remaining candidates were onboarded within the next few months.

Our continuity of operations despite the personal and workplace turmoil of the pandemic is an accomplishment in and of itself. While working remotely from March 2020 to September 2021, we reviewed and qualified over 9,000 resumes. In addition, we canvassed over 6,000 resumes from virtual career fairs that are being considered for current openings.

SHRM Online: Has your agency experienced many resignations? 

Recruitment Team: Although on a relatively minimal scale, our agency has encountered retention and turnover challenges from various health care professionals, primarily nurses, social workers and physicians. The most common themes for their exit were a strong desire to relocate to another state, wanting more flexibility in their work schedule that would allow for a hybrid of in-person and remote working, and prioritizing family bonding and a higher focus on one's mental health relative to one's professional commitment to their career.

SHRM Online: What is the department's talent acquisition and retention outlook for 2022?

Recruitment Team: We will amplify our diversity and inclusion recruitment goals and objectives by engaging in the following:

  • Engaging in more extensive social media promotion of our high-priority vacancies.
  • Conducting more structured interviewing and diversity and inclusion training of hiring managers across the agency.
  • Recommitting to conducting cultural sensitivity trainings to make the Health Department an inclusive place for new candidates and existing staff of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, gender identities and sexual orientations, and/or who have a disability.
  • Strategically maximizing our targeted recruitment efforts among people who identify as having a criminal record, Black or African-American, Latino/a or Hispanic, LGBTQIA+; people with disabilities; and veterans.
  • Amplifying workforce training and development of our internal workforce.
  • Creating a diverse and inclusive mentorship program.
  • Engaging in more internal promotion of our existing workforce.
  • Analyzing pay structures to ensure equity and, where warranted and possible, increase compensation to support retention.


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