Interview: Dealing with Covid-19
This past year presented the Kice community with some unprecedented times and new ways to support employees during the Covid19 pandemic.
Interview with Kice HR Director, Lori Swilley
What was it like for Kice and the HR team right when this pandemic started to emerge? What type of education, collaboration, and training did you take on at the beginning?
I think we immediately went into a “protection” mode. My initial thought was about how we could ensure the safety of employees. We balanced that with the need to stay open so that employees could continue to earn wages. We quickly started researching and reaching out to other HR professionals and organizations to determine what everyone else had learned. We had to look at this from so many different angles. OSHA, ADA, attendance issues, additional PPE, additional and enhanced cleaning, CDC, WHO, and KDOH recommendations (which seemed to change more rapidly than we could implement), writing new policies, and throughout everything, ensuring that we had reliable information.
Managing a pandemic is not something you learn in college!
What were some of the first facility implementations Kice did in response to COVID-19?
We recognized the need to ensure more distance between workstations. As a result, we quickly evaluated the ability to have the majority of employees work from home. With our IT department’s help, we could secure enough equipment to send employees home to work. Our IT team worked fast and furiously until everyone had the equipment needed. Our drafting and design teams were great during this time as well. They pulled together as a team, and even though they had to lug their desktops home (due to the software they use), they all quickly set up workstations at home and maintained their work production. For approximately four weeks, all employees in the office worked from home. While everyone was out, we had a professional cleaning crew come in and disinfect the building. We slowly allowed those working in offices to return if they wanted to. We installed plexiglass dividers between each workstation and created a schedule for employees to return to work. They were not only separated by the plexiglass but still at a distance of at least 6 feet away from each other. We changed our office cleaning schedule so that all surfaces were cleaned at least four times each day, in addition to employees cleaning their high touch areas multiple times each day.
We also purchased face masks and sanitizing wipes for every office and workstation and provided hand sanitizing stations at every building entrance.
However, we had to take a different approach with the shop. Since they obviously couldn’t work from home, the shop leadership team developed a new setup that allowed employees to maintain a significant distance from each other. All shop employees were required to wear masks if they were within 6 feet of each other. Also, work areas had to be cleaned regularly. The breakroom was off-limits since it is a small space, and very few employees could be inside at the same time while maintaining a safe distance.
We disabled all drinking fountains and limited the number of people allowed in the restrooms at the same time. We also closed off the community refrigerator and had a specific protocol for using microwaves, etc., in the kitchen.
What are some of the things Kice has implemented policy-wise over the past year to the present to help mitigate the COVID-19 crisis?
We updated our attendance policy a few times and eventually developed a Temporary COVID19 Protocol Policy, which was updated as needed. Each update was the result of learning more about the virus and what the CDC recommended. We placed restrictions on business travel, restricted visitors coming into the building, and continuously reviewed the steps we were taking to ensure we were doing everything we could. Shop employees were required to have their temperatures taken daily, and managers were instructed to send employees home if they appeared ill.
We also loosened our dress code so that employees working in the office could dress more casually if they wanted.
The Employee Handbook was revised in January, and as part of the pandemic, new policies were added. Others were revised to include information “in case of a pandemic or other emergency.”
What were the most notable organizational/company changes you had to make in response to Covid?
Working closely with each manager to determine how long an employee needed to remain at home based on the circumstances surrounding illness, potential or definite exposure, travel, contact closeness with others, etc., and working with employees who had issues with their child(ren)s school or daycare.
We had to implement a method to track all of the various situations that could be considered COVID-related. The leadership team agreed we would develop a system that would allow us to continue to partially pay employees for COVID-related absences. Then the FFCRA and special FMLA laws were enacted that required employers to pay employees for COVID related absences. However, the new laws did not give much guidance on tracking the absences or what exactly qualified. We had to become creative to ensure we could validate our decisions to provide FFCRA pay.
We now participate in WSU’s Molecular Diagnostic Lab testing. This allows us to provide on-site testing, and results are returned within 24 hours. Employees can easily get tested and return to work sooner if they test negative.
What did Kice’s preparation look like leading up to deciding to go to a remote working environment last spring? How did going remote work for the company?
The decision to go remote came quickly. The pandemic was such a rapidly evolving situation, and it didn’t seem like we ever had much time to “plan” anything. Kice has a great team of managers, and everyone got together to devise a plan that worked great. Managers were able to monitor their employees’ work output, and in-person meetings become Teams Meetings or phone calls.
Working remote went better than most expected, and now we have a tool that can be used in the future should we need to. However, being apart also proved how meaningful relationships are to our business and culture.
What have been your biggest internal challenges over the last year?
I feel like the employees at Kice did a great job adapting to the ever-changing policy revisions, protocol changes, restrictions, and expectations. Dealing with the entire situation was a challenge, but because everyone worked as a team, the challenge wasn’t bad than some of the stories I’ve heard. It was a little nerve-racking, never knowing if we might suddenly have a large number of employees out at the same time. For HR, our biggest challenge was that we were in the process of implementing a new HRIS and payroll system at the time the pandemic hit. Juggling both in addition to our regular responsibilities was stressful at times.
Did the company experience any outbreaks?
We have experienced some positive cases. Either the employee’s manager or I immediately question the “positive” employee to make sure we can identify any employees who may have potentially come into contact with the positive employee. We have been fortunate that our employees have been proactive, so we have not had any “clusters.” Thankfully, nobody has had to be hospitalized.
You still were filling employment positions throughout the pandemic this past year. What did this new process of interviewing and hiring look like?
Even posting a job opening has changed. Questions many job boards now ask are what kind of COVID precautions does the company take and is this job temporarily remote, or can it be only remote. We haven’t had to change the process much. We have always conducted one or two phone interviews before inviting an applicant on-site to interview. It is difficult getting used to NOT shaking hands and remembering to offer a face mask and/or hand sanitizer when applicants come in. I would say that managers have been slightly more decisive when inviting applicants for an in-person interview.
How do you expect Kice to adapt to the pandemic this year continually?
I believe that Kice will use caution going forward to ensure that our ability to protect our employees and successfully maintain operations continues. If we become too lax too soon, we could end up with a whole new set of challenges. I anticipate that we will continue to monitor the situation and adapt our approach as needed until we are no longer in a “pandemic.”