Staffing Through the Pandemic

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As Covid-19 began to take hold in the U.S. earlier this year, staffing companies emerged as critical partners in an effort to keep people employed, businesses running, and the country afloat. Here’s a look at several firms that embraced the challenge and made a remarkable difference.

Like the U.S. economy, the staffing industry has been rocked to its core by Covid-19. In these unprecedented times, many staffing companies have faced extraordinary demands for workers in support of health care, manufacturing, and other essential needs.

ASA stepped in early with actionable insights for its member staffing companies, creating a microsite with information on financial assistance available under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act as well as timely updates on Covid-19 legislation and guidance on safe workplace practices. (Visit americanstaffing.net/SafelyBackToWork.)

Supported by these efforts and driven by an industrywide mission to help people find the work they need and want, staffing companies throughout the country rose to the challenge amid the pandemic. They met the needs of their clients while prioritizing the safety of temporary and contract employees. They continued to engage with candidates with safety measures in place. And they remained agile as situations and demands fluctuated.

Here are a few stories of staffing company heroism. These companies—like so many outstanding ASA members throughout the U.S.—have played vital roles amid the pandemic by staffing emergency rooms, providing workers to manufacturers of safety equipment, and keeping state agencies dealing with a crush of unemployment claims open for business in a time of national crisis.

‘Not Seen Anything Like It’

Headquartered in Gilbert, AZ, AB Staffing Solutions has a national footprint. When the coronavirus outbreak hit, the calls started coming in from all across the country. With patients flooding into hospitals and medical clinics, the staffing firm saw an unprecedented surge in demand for doctors and nurses.
“I’ve been in staffing for 30 years and I’ve not seen anything like it,” says AB Staffing Solutions president Evan Burks. “I’ve been through Y2K. I’ve been through the economic downturn of 2008. And I have never experienced anything quite like this.”

The first call came from a client in California who needed dozens of nurses, practically overnight. Deploying medical personnel normally takes time: Staffing companies must check references, confirm credentials, initiate background checks. With less than 48 hours to meet the order, “we had folks jumping through hoops trying to get all those key items done before we put someone on an airplane,” Burks recalls.

Then the calls started coming from New York as that city blew up into a Covid-19 hotpot. A federal client, a prime contractor supporting the municipal Covid-19 response, and others—all were in need of medical personnel in a hurry. “They needed physicians and nurses, 150 to 200 people, with a third of those needed in 24 to 48 hours, and the rest in the course of the next week and a half,” Burks says.

“Our people stepped up: They were going 24/7. We worked with the clients on the credentialing, checking licenses and certifications, and getting the background checks at least started. We got all the primary things happening right away,” he adds.

When the internal database and the usual job boards proved insufficient to the task, team members went old-school, cold-calling their way down lists of medical professionals. “Our folks started getting creative—they were calling lists of physicians and finding people who have never been part of the staffing industry. Would they be willing to do this? Or did they have friends who would be willing to do this?”

The medical community rose to the occasion, Burks notes. “We had a lot of folks who were willing to put their careers on hold in order to be a part of this. The candidates we were calling were excited to pitch in and help, especially in New York where the worst of the worst was taking place. People were being uprooted and they were going into harm’s way, and they still wanted to do it.”

The money helped: Pay rates were higher, given the urgency of the demand and the short supply of labor. But Burks said it wasn’t the money alone that drove the strong response. “It was really about people being willing to pull together for a common goal.”

ASA helped to connect Burks with others in the same boat, an effort that he said was key to driving the successful ramp-up. “We were able to compare stories, to see what was going on in their particular markets, in their particular industries,” he says. “They came from light industrial, from the technical arena, from health care, and we got a good sense of what was really happening by comparing all those experiences. We talked a lot about how they were handling it from a practical perspective, as well as about the government programs and the PPP loans. It was very, very useful.”

While those early days of the pandemic were in some ways extraordinarily trying, there was also an upside in terms of the staffing firm’s internal dynamic. “The staff feels very good about it. People want to do important work, and with this they could feel that they were part of something bigger than just the company itself,” Burks explains. “It is clear to everyone that, while we are not the ones providing the medical care, it’s up to us to provide the right person in the right place with the right skill set. If we can do that, we will save lives.”

Providing Niche Talent

At Cincinnati-based Gus Perdikakis Associates, the critical call came from a manufacturing client. In the early days of the pandemic the client had decided to retool its facilities to produce personal protective equipment, or PPE, which was then in short supply at medical facilities nationwide. Instead of fabricating its usual goods, such as covers for equipment, the factory would shift to producing masks, gowns, and other gear in support of frontline health care workers.

To get it done, the client would need the talents of individuals experienced in the use of industrial sewing machines. It’s a niche need—one that this family-owned firm was uniquely poised to fill. Mandie Perdikakis, the staffing firm’s director of organizational development, had studied fashion design at the University of Cincinnati. That experience included working with textiles in manufacturing settings.

“I’ve worked in companies that manufacture clothing, so I know what a sewing line looks like. I know what a sewing team does,” she explains. “I’m used to working with sewers on the production of clothing, so I understood exactly what the client needed.” She reached out to the alumni network at her alma mater and found a group of people ready and able to do just the kind of work that was needed.

“When people graduate from a design program, many don’t know where they are going to go next— whether they will stay in Cincinnati or move to a big city with a fashion design center,” she adds. With New York at a virtual standstill, many had their dreams put on hold in the early days of the pandemic. “It was exciting to be able to say to them, ‘Here is a job right here in your backyard,’ right at a time when there was no hope for them moving to New York because the fashion business was furloughed.”

Her outreach helped to spark a fire—not just because she had work available, but because that work would be in support of an urgent social need. “A lot of people were sharing this on social media; they were very open to spreading word because they saw the need for humans to be helping each other during Covid. They saw it as a chance to help a local manufacturer to produce what was needed to support the health care industry,” she says.

The fact that this was full-time work made it doubly appealing. “These are 40-hour-a-week employees, so they are eligible for health insurance and 401K, and this happened at a time when the rest of the economy was seeing high unemployment.”

Even as it poured its energy into meeting client requirements, the staffing company made internal changes to support its corporate employees. With associates working from home, the company hosted a regular midweek Zoom huddle, to ensure everyone was able to continue working well as a team. After about eight weeks, the staff opted to return to the physical work environment. “In the staffing world people tend to be extroverts, and working from home puts a cap on a lot of that. It changes the dynamic,” Perdikakis notes. “Our people want to be in that collaborative environment.”

ASA also helped the firm to navigate through these complex times. “The monthly section council calls were very helpful. We could share with others who were in the same situation,” she says. “Because they were informal, it brought down a lot of the walls. It made this something that we all were experiencing together—colleagues just checking in with each other and supporting each other in trying to get things back to a more normal place.” (Joining an ASA section is a benefit of membership. Go to americanstaffing.net/sections.)

‘Through the Roof’

When the coronavirus spiked in Missouri and businesses started shutting their doors, the phones started ringing at C&S Business Services headquarters in Jefferson City. Multiple state entities including the Department of Revenue and the Department of Labor required urgent staffing support.

“Unemployment claims went through the roof, and they needed help with that,” says Paula S. Benne, president of the firm. A single order came through for 200 workers; there were calls for support in banking functions, legal work, and general customer service.

At the same time, C&S ramped up to support manufacturing facilities in central Missouri that produce and package essential products and supplies. “We have several manufacturers that make antibacterial hand lotions and cleaning supplies, so they were essential and had to keep going,” Benne explains. “If they had people out, I needed to backfill. I needed to keep them staffed.”

A generous compensation plan helped to fill the orders, with hazard pay available to anyone willing to take on critical jobs during the pandemic. “They are going out there as essential workers and they needed to be compensated accordingly. We wanted to take care of them as best we could,” she notes. Additionally, C&S purchased and produced a 30-second public service announcement to run on the local CBS affiliate, with a thank-you message to all those working in any capacity amid the pandemic in the community.

As the pandemic’s reach continued, the staffing company moved to a work-from-home plan for its internal employees. “We made all our processes remote very quickly so we could recruit all over the state very effectively and efficiently,” Benne says. “We have people working remotely all across the state of Missouri, and that has broadened our reach for candidates considerably.”

For those who came into the office—and many did eventually choose to do so—C&S implemented glass partitions and other social distancing protocols. “A lot of our people still wanted to be in the office. They felt they needed to be here,” she says. And thus, the company implemented the safety measures.

Benne said the resources provided by ASA were critical in helping her company navigate a challenging and sometimes overwhelming situation. “I’m very grateful to ASA. They were able to get me the information I needed without my having to hunt for it,” she says. “The government released all kinds of CARES Act and PPP documents, but ASA translated it into staffing language for us, so I could see what I actually needed to do.”

Despite the complexities of delivering skilled labor in the new environment, Benne said she is pleased with the role her firm played in supporting essential needs. “I’ve done this work for 33 years, and having to learn a whole different model was a challenge, but it was all worth it—knowing we were keeping this nation going and keeping people employed doing essential work,” she said. “We kept income moving for a lot of people, a lot of households.”

Filling Key Roles

As a subsidiary of HCA Healthcare, the nation’s largest health care system, it would seem that Covid-19 would have set the phones on fire at HealthTrust Workforce Solutions. In fact, the early days of the pandemic saw things grind to a halt.

“Everyone went down to truly essential staffing. There were no elective surgeries happening, there was no need for nonessential staff to be in the hospital,” says Shaun McCamant, chief nursing officer for the company.

Then the needle swung hard the other way.

“As people realized there was not going to be a lack of beds, that we wouldn’t have an incredibly high surge, people started bringing elective procedures back on line,” McCamant explains. “Then we hit a heightened pace of Covid—especially in some of the hot spots around the country. We saw a very high surge of Covid patients who needed care, and it wasn’t a slow rise. We went very quickly into truly an excessive need.”

The staffing firm had to move fast to fill those orders, and there were challenges. Nursing in general is an aging profession, and older workers didn’t necessarily feel comfortable going back to work. Younger nurses had to balance their careers against the need to care for kids at home. At the same time, states were paying a premium to fill newly created health care roles.

“We had to look at our pay across the boards, and we had to look at ways to entice people to come back,” McCamant says. “That meant doing shorter assignments, and it also meant looking geographically. There are places in the country—Colorado, Idaho, Alaska—where there were nurses who were willing to come help the hardest hit areas, but they only wanted to come for two weeks or four weeks.”

Even as it pursued external talent, the staffing firm leveraged ASA best practices and other guidance to help drive internal changes. This broader industry view helped the firm to support its own core of some 900 employees under radically changed circumstances. “We became 100% remote, from our recruiters and onboarders to our financial team and our operations team. We took those completely remote, and we continue to be almost completely remote,” she says.

Data has been a key element supporting the firm’s Covid-19 response. “We look at the Johns Hopkins data daily. We look at the needs across our company to see what everybody is doing. We look at satisfaction rates. We look at our vendors and our partners in the community to see what we can do to enhance the things they are doing,” McCamant says. “We want to ensure we are very data-driven and not just doing things from the gut.”

That focus on measurable metrics made a big difference when the urgent calls for personnel began coming in. “It meant we could see what was happening and how fast, so we knew where we needed to ramp up based on data, based on true indicators of what was happening.”

Share your company’s story at americanstaffing.net/covid-19, where you can download safety best practices, staffing-specific FAQs, and issue papers on the business loan programs under the CARES Act.


Adam Stone, a freelance writer based in Annapolis, MD, is a regular contributor to Staffing Success. Send feedback on this article to success@americanstaffing.net. Engage with ASA on social media—go to americanstaffing.net/social.

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