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Profiles of the Pandemic

From coast to coast , HR professionals are making significant contributions to their companies during the most trying of times.

​From the COVID-19 pandemic upending the way many people work and live, to nationwide protests against systemic racism, to a heated election for the U.S. presidency, 2020 will no doubt be seared into people’s memories. Yet from coast to coast, HR professionals have stepped up to meet the challenges.

Despite unprecedented obstacles, many HR practitioners have made significant contributions to their organizations. Examples include ramping up virtual hiring, expanding diversity efforts, and revamping leave and compensation programs. What follows is just a sample of those individuals and their achievements.

Vicki Lusk, SHRM-SCP

Human Resources Director
La Casa Inc.
Las Cruces, N.M.lusk

When Vicki Lusk joined La Casa last year, she had to re-create the HR department for the organization that serves domestic violence survivors. La Casa hadn’t had a designated HR person in three years, and forms, policies and procedures were outdated or didn’t exist.

As a one-person HR department, Lusk developed formal processes for recruiting, interviewing and selecting new employees; straightened out personnel files; introduced a drug and alcohol policy for staff and applicants; changed benefits providers; and established regular training for supervisors and employees.

Lusk, who had worked in various HR positions for the local Dona Ana County government, says that the changes she has implemented at La Casa “would not be possible without my past experience in HR” and that she drew on a “wealth of knowledge from my network of human resources colleagues.” She also relied heavily on content provided on the Society for Human Resource Management’s website.

One big change Lusk has made has been formalizing the way La Casa recruits new hires. The organization has fewer than 50 employees and offers a wide range of services, including operating an emergency shelter and transitional housing for domestic violence survivors and providing education, counseling, legal services and immigration assistance. 

Previously, job openings had no closing date and job seekers could drop off, mail or e-mail their applications, with no process for collecting them all in one place, Lusk says. Now the application process is handled through the recruiting website 

As she was creating new policies and processes, Lusk was forced to cope with the COVID-19 outbreak. That meant identifying essential employees who needed to work onsite to keep La Casa’s emergency shelter and transitional housing up and running, as well as developing policies for residents of the shelter concerning social distancing, wearing masks and using hand sanitizer.

Lusk also learned how to use Zoom so the staff could meet virtually to discuss changes in policies and procedures required by the pandemic. Staff training sessions have continued, focusing on topics such as how to reduce burnout while working from home. 

Over the summer, the organization began developing policies to determine which employees can return to work when.

“It’s been fast and furious,” she says.

Dan Van De Voorde, SHRM-CP

Director, people and culture
Strata Decision Technology

Onboarding new employees and interns remained a top priority for Strata Decision Technology, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

When the virus struck, top leaders and the people operations team realized they had to act quickly to ensure the safety of the company’s more than 300 workers and the support of its customers, says Dan Van De Voorde, director of people and culture at Strata, which provides technology software and services to hospitals and health care systems.

After the company switched to a fully virtual work environment in March, the question became “How do you continue to recruit, interview and onboard?” Van De Voorde recalls.

Strata had already selected summer interns and a number of new hires. Leadership quickly decided it was important to proceed. 

“We owed it to our candidates and our interns—we made a commitment to them,” Van De Voorde says. 

Within five days, the company had a plan in place so hiring could continue. Prior to the pandemic, a key recruiting component was bringing job candidates to the office so they could experience the company’s culture and understand Strata better, he says.

But under the circumstances, the company shifted to video interviews, which allowed candidates to meet online with a series of managers and receive a virtual tour of the office.

The goal was to “create an experience for people that was just as close as it would be if they walked through the doors of our office in Chicago,” Van De Voorde says.

In the months since, 36 employees have been hired. Strata sends a computer, along with instructions on how to log in and access videoconferencing, to new hires before their first day of work. That’s followed by a talk with Strata’s chief executive officer, Dan Michelson, who welcomes each employee to the company and explains its mission and vision. 

Strata created projects, quizzes and small-group discussions to enhance the virtual experience, Van De Voorde says. 

Strata’s six summer interns worked 20 hours a week, rather than the 40 hours they would have logged for in-person internships. They did more independent work as well as group projects, and then made virtual presentations about their experiences.

Strata has found that the virtual internships have led to more flexibility, allowing the company to bring on interns from around the country. 

Most of all, Van De Voorde wants to be sure the virtual internship experience “is meaningful and helps support us as an organization.”

Mark Schaerrer,SHRM-CP

Salt Lake SHRM chapter president
Director of human resources
Verisys Corp.
West Jordan, Utahschaerrer

Empowering middle managers has been the key to reducing turnover and improving employee engagement at Verisys Corp.

The company, headquartered in Alexandria, Va., conducts background checks and verifies credentials for health care providers, with the goal of “getting the bad actors out of health care,” says Mark Schaerrer, the HR director.

Since Schaerrer joined Verisys last October, he has focused on developing the strengths and independence of middle managers so they can serve as effective people leaders and directly make decisions that impact their teams.

With the changes, middle managers are “working as essentially HR front-line generalists, looking how to best grow the people on their teams based on their strengths,” he says.

Schaerrer decided to focus on middle managers because they have the most touch points with Verisys’ 208 employees, who are located across the country. The managers are encouraged to be “people-centered.”

To aid middle managers, the HR department developed regular in-person training sessions on best practices for leading teams and managing change.

“Managers needed to know that if they wanted to change the culture of their team, it needed to start with them,” he says. 

HR team members also began taking part in weekly leadership meetings to help them become better partners with managers, Schaerrer says. In addition, the HR team is active on the company’s Slack channels so members of the department can work to quickly resolve issues as they arise. 

A key element of the initiative is granting middle managers greater autonomy. 

“If mid-line managers ask if they can do something, try to find a way to say yes,” Schaerrer says.

When the pandemic hit, the company switched to an almost entirely remote workforce. During that time, 80 employees were laid off because Verisys lost a major contract.

“We were very transparent, even through that,” Schaerrer says.

Verisys managers understand the challenges of working from home, particularly when children and other family members are present.

When middle managers were thrown into the COVID-19 crisis, “they just blossomed,” he says.

Despite the challenges of recent months, turnover has decreased and morale has improved because of the changes implemented by the HR department, Schaerrer says. Since last fall, employee ratings of the company on Glassdoor have jumped to 4.2 stars from 3.1 stars.

“It doesn’t cost anything to care about your people,” he says. “It just takes effort.”

Valerie Utsey, SHRM-CP

Chief human resources officer
T-Rex Solutions
Greenbelt, Md.


Concerned about the number of women and people of color who were leaving T-Rex Solutions, the information technology services provider’s top executives decided last year to make diversity and inclusion a strategic initiative for 2020. That was before the national protests against systemic racism cast a glaring spotlight on corporate inequities. 

“Diversity and inclusion for me was key because of our turnover,” says Chief Human Resources Officer Valerie Utsey. 

Turnover of women and minority workers was occurring at a higher rate than for white males. In 2019, 40 percent of the company’s 153 female and minority employees left the company, compared with 21 percent of 72 white males.

However, the protests “obviously drove a new awareness of diversity,” Utsey says.

The HR team at the company is adopting various measures to better understand the disparities in turnover rates and how to address them.

The company worked to ensure that minorities and women were invited to and had opportunities to participate in key meetings, Utsey says. The HR team also increased the number of check-ins it had with employees, scheduling in-person and, later, virtual meetings to ask if they had any work-related problems. If concerns were raised, the HR business partner strived to address them as quickly as possible. 

Utsey also is reviewing employee compensation to make sure quarterly recognition bonuses are fair and equitable, regardless of gender or race, and to make sure annual bonuses are given to a diverse group of employees.

An outside consultant is helping T-Rex leaders understand why minorities are leaving the company at high rates and will provide leadership training on issues such as microaggression, Utsey says.

Over the past year, the company has put an emphasis on promoting women and minorities into leadership positions, she says. The company recently hired a Black man as executive vice president of cybersecurity. Of the company’s 13 leaders, Utsey is the only other person of color and one of just two women. 

The company is also working to ensure that corporate donations “are representative of a diverse organization,” Utsey says.

T-Rex is title sponsor of DC SCORES, which creates neighborhood teams that help youngsters develop the confidence and skills they need to succeed throughout their lives. The company also supports Patriots, a Maryland-based organization that encourages minority students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

And as the COVID-19 pandemic has left millions unemployed, T-Rex has donated $200,000 to nonprofit organizations that tackle food insecurity. Much of the money went to organizations in Prince George’s County, Md., where the company is based and where more than 60 percent of the population is Black.

“We’re trying to show in the community the importance of diversity,” Utsey says.

From a retention perspective, she says, the emphasis on diversity is the key to making sure employees are happy and satisfied. 

Carol Cooley

Former Chief People Officer


To aid employees working at client sites during the pandemic, security company HSS has created programs that allow workers to donate their leave to fellow employees and access their pay sooner.

“I’m incredibly proud of the work HSS has accomplished during the pandemic,” says Carol Cooley, who was chief people officer at the company until recently, when she stepped away for personal reasons.

The majority of HSS’s 3,500 employees are considered essential workers, with the bulk of them providing security at hospitals, government buildings and airports. Others perform such jobs as repairing medical equipment and installing and monitoring security systems.

“We’re really on the cutting edge of this pandemic,” Cooley says.

Many of these jobs carry the risk of exposure to COVID-19, and part-time employees and those who have worked for the company for less than a year aren’t covered under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. As a result, HSS created a paid-time-off (PTO) share plan and an enhanced leave plan so employees can take the time off they need when they need it. 

“We didn’t want to encourage people to come to work if they had COVID-19 symptoms,” Cooley says.

The new leave plans are designed to work hand in hand. With the enhanced leave provisions, any employee who contracts COVID-19 is eligible to take time off to recover from the virus, regardless of whether they’re full time or part time, or how long they have worked for the company. Under the PTO share provisions, employees are able to donate their unused paid time off to help fellow workers who contract COVID-19 and either aren’t eligible for leave or have exhausted the leave they have. That ensures that employees have income, even if they can’t work, Cooley says.

To date, more than 2,000 hours of PTO have been donated and more than 1,500 hours have been requested.

In addition, HSS provided hourly workers with quicker access to their paychecks. These employees are now paid weekly rather than twice a month, Cooley says.

HSS leaders had originally planned to prioritize new company initiatives later in 2020 but pushed the programs through ahead of schedule in response to the pandemic, Cooley notes.

Moves such as these “can really demonstrate the value you place on teammates,” she says.

Mario Arevalo

Director of human resources
Mutual of Omaha Mortgage
San Diego


Since the pandemic hit hard in mid-March, Mutual of Omaha Mortgage has been able to onboard hundreds of employees while barely missing a beat.

That’s because the company had shifted to a virtual system well before the public health crisis forced many businesses to do so, says Mario Arevalo, HR director for the company of more than 1,000 employees.

When he joined the company two years ago, the onboarding process still required new employees to print and sign many paper documents. The system was cumbersome, with a lot of back and forth between employees and the organization.

Since then, Arevalo has worked to create a completely electronic onboarding process. That’s particularly important in an organization where many employees have always worked remotely and turnover is high, he says.

The new process reduced onboarding time from more than a week to 72 hours, he says.

The system got its first real workout when Mutual of Omaha Mortgage acquired BBMC Mortgage in late 2018 and was able to onboard about 100 people a week between Thanksgiving and Christmas—a total of 500 employees in six weeks.

Rather than dealing with multiple people in human resources, incoming employees work with one onboarder from the time they’re offered a job until after they begin working for the company, Arevalo says.

Along with handling the paperwork needed for a new hire, the onboarder also arranges to have computer equipment sent to the new employee’s home and ensures that the individual’s e-mail account and other credentials are ready. 

The onboarders “hold your hand through the first week or so,” Arevalo says, and provide ongoing support as needed. New hires also go through a virtual orientation session. 

The information the new hire provides during onboarding is automatically exported to the payroll system, Arevalo notes, so new employees don’t have to input the same information twice.

In a high-turnover industry, the system allows Mutual of Omaha Mortgage to keep up, providing the ability to bring on a high volume of people. “It makes the transition faster and smoother,” Arevalo says.

When the pandemic struck, other companies switched to virtual onboarding, putting extra demands on IT providers who shipped equipment to Mutual of Omaha’s new recruits and creating slight delays in the onboarding process, Arevalo says. That has required him and his staff to acknowledge it might take a few days longer to bring someone on board. 

“We were probably being harder on ourselves than any of our new hires were being,” he says.  

Susan Ladika is a freelance writer based in Tampa, Fla.

Illustration by Hawk Krall.

Photography: Vicky Lusk by Kevin Parisi, Mark Schaerrer by Nick Sokoloff, Mario Arevalo by Rob Andrew.