Staffing Innovations for Emergency COVID-19 Response

July 8, 2020
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Built for Zero compiled this information in response to community requests for consolidated, vetted guidance about how to quickly and efficiently increase and repurpose staff power for emergency response due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the first few weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, homeless services staff had to move nimbly to keep up with a rapidly changing environment. With quarantine and isolation shelters, scattered-site hotels, and congregate shelter deintensification efforts, crucial service agencies needed more staff power quickly — a task more easily said than done for a sector already experiencing chronic staffing shortages and high turnover. 

Learn how three Built for Zero communities met staffing challenges head-on and innovated solutions to get them through their highest staffing need moments. Leaders from each of these communities agreed to chat with Built for Zero staff about how they were able to make it work.

*Please note that the conversations here have been edited for clarity and do not necessarily represent the actual language used by the interviewee, although the meaning remains unchanged.

Oklahoma City: Staffing for Infection Control and Burnout Prevention

Kinsey Crocker, Director of Communications at the Homeless Alliance in Oklahoma City, agreed to talk with us about an innovative staffing practice that helped keep their day shelter operational, services available, and staff as protected as possible.

Crocker: One of the first things that hit home for me was the need to keep serving people in the community over the long-term. As the world was shutting down around us, we knew we needed to mitigate risk and keep staff safe so they could keep providing services as long as possible.

We run several programs, but the one I was most concerned about was our day shelter. Our two full-time kitchen staff serve meals to over 350 people per day, and I didn’t want to think about what would happen to our clients if one or both of them got sick.

I also thought about our volunteers. It was a hard decision, because we’re stretched on a normal day, but we had to ask them to stop coming. Many of our volunteers came through AARP and were at too high a risk for the virus to keep coming in to help.

Crocker: It was like building an airplane midair. Our leadership team moved from weekly to daily meetings so we could look at COVID case numbers and make decisions about operational changes. Having all leadership team members be part of those meetings was crucial so we could all stay in communication and look at the issues from different perspectives.

We ended up keeping half the staff on campus and sending the other half home to work remotely. Then, we switched the groups every three weeks so that there were two distinct cohorts of staff. The idea behind this was that each group would have time for a full quarantine period before returning to work on campus.

Some staff members had worked at home before, so we were fortunate that we already had a VPN and some IT infrastructure in place. Not all of our staff members had laptops, though, so we had to figure out how we would move resources and tasks around to accommodate them.

At first it was very difficult to have the staff split. We tried to make the best of it and keep up morale by giving each team a name, starting a private Facebook group dedicated to socializing, and hosting virtual happy hours. One of my favorite things we started doing was leaving silly pictures around the building on shift changes for the other team to find. My team was called The Ninjas, so one week when we came back to campus we found paper ninjas with our faces on them taped up on the walls. 

While working at home, staff spent time conducting remote check-ins with clients, updating case notes, auditing files, and keeping up with which community resources were available for clients to use. Meanwhile at the day shelter, it was all hands on deck. 

Most providers that offered meals had closed, so we functionally turned the day shelter into a food warehouse. Regardless of a staff member’s formal position, everyone unloaded food deliveries, packed boxes, and delivered meals during this time. We distributed to-go meals onsite and prepped food boxes to bring to our housed clients. We also made food and hygiene kits for outreach workers to take to encampments so people could continue to social distance without need to go into congregate environments for food and supplies. 

To keep everyone safe, we also had to figure out how to keep clients up to date on social distancing and mask-wearing guidelines. We found that some of our guests felt that COVID-19 didn’t pose a real threat to them, and displayed lax behavior toward the guidelines. At first we tried making flyers and posters, but we weren’t seeing real change. Then, we tried keeping a chalkboard outside alongside the line to receive to-go meals. On it, we would update the daily data on infection and death numbers in our community. I think seeing the data made a really compelling case to our guests because we saw better adherence to safety guidelines once we started doing that. 

Crocker: I think our team is coming out stronger. Employees are getting the chance to work with people they don’t usually work with. It’s created new relationships within the organization.

It’s also strengthened the street outreach efforts in our community. Prior to the pandemic, we hosted monthly Coordinated Street Outreach meetings where many of the government and nonprofit organizations that conduct street outreach met to coordinate efforts. During the pandemic, we all had to shift more resources to this area. We temporarily shifted some of our housing case managers to street outreach teams, and we were delivering more than 1,200 sack lunches and 500 grocery and hygiene bags weekly to people who are unsheltered all over the city. It was a massive undertaking, but an important one to limit the potential spread of the virus.  

Crocker: It has solidified to me that we have a compassionate, dedicated group of people who are willing to go above and beyond working at our organization. People were willing to be nimble and adapt on the fly. It was so inspiring to see.

We also decided to hire new positions focusing on homelessness prevention and rapid re-housing. With the economic impact of the virus, there’s an uncertain future for many unstably housed folks. We want to be prepared if there’s a surge of new inflow.

As COVID-19 numbers are beginning to rise again in our state, we will likely have to continue adapting and will be better prepared with what we have learned.

Kinsey Crocker Headshot

“It has solidified to me that we have a compassionate, dedicated group of people who are willing to go above and beyond working at our organization. People were willing to be nimble and adapt on the fly. It was so inspiring to see.”

– Kinsey Crocker

Denver, CO: Repurposing the Talent You Have

James Sieffert is the Operations Manager of the Homes for All Veterans program at Rocky Mountain Human Services. We spoke with him about how his organization was able to avoid furloughing staff by transferring them between programs.

Sieffert: Right now, our organization has about 300 staff members funded by contracts and grants. Homes for All Veterans is the only program receiving federal funding through the Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) grant — the rest are from state Medicaid. With the coronavirus beginning to spread through Denver, state revenue began to decline, leaving our organization to figure out how we were going to make it through the rest of the year on a reduced budget. 

Activity in the organization was slowing down due to the virus — the population served by most of the organization’s case managers were too high-risk for COVID-19 and weren’t a good fit for virtual services, so those case managers had a lot less to do. The one exception was the Home for All Veterans program, which was actually seeing more activity and receiving additional funding to combat COVID-19. We knew we needed help in some areas to keep the Home for All Veterans program going. We wanted to avoid having to hire and onboard a bunch of new people, so we decided to try to repurpose our existing staff to fill the gap.

Sieffert: Another program manager and I decided to make a “master list” of everyone in the organization, with the help of our program assistant. We went to each department and asked about the capacity and role of each employee, trying to determine whose workload had decreased and the type of work each employee did.

Employees that had a certain percentage of their time available were matched with the tasks that were needed in the Homes for All Vets program. We tried to make sure the tasks were as close as possible to the tasks the employee was already accustomed to doing. For instance, if there was someone working in admin, we would try to find them an admin task eligible under our federal grant, like helping with financials or making hotel reservations for quarantine. Some of the employees with case management experience were able to do phone and virtual visits with veterans in quarantine and isolation hotels to assist with housing plans.  

The repurposed employees only contributed a percentage of their time toward the Home for All Veterans program, but we were able to keep these staff members employed full-time by splitting paying for their position between the employee’s original program and the SSVF program.

We did run into the problem of how to quickly train on the new tasks and processes. What we decided to do was not train the staff member on every single aspect of the job; rather, we identified an area that we needed help in and trained the staff member in that one specialized area. If we identified a new need, we would train them again on the new task. We actually think this could be a good way to train new staff. It gives them the opportunity to train on one area at a time, avoiding the problem of having way too much information up front.

Sieffert: The main benefit we’re seeing is to our clients. Now that we’ve delegated tasks to additional staff, case managers have more time to spend with clients, especially those more difficult cases that need extra assistance. It’s relieved much of the stress on our case managers to know that they have the time they need to spend with each veteran.

We’ve also seen that the intake department is much better able to get veterans assessed for the program and into emergency housing much more quickly. The extra staff power means that veterans are able to finish the full program application in just one phone call.

Sieffert: As additional coronavirus relief funds for veterans are awarded, we’ve been able to start hiring new full-time employees. Looking through the applications, our approach to the type of candidate we’re searching for has changed. We’re putting much more emphasis on finding candidates that are able to be flexible with the type of work they do, because we don’t know how needs will change over the course of the pandemic.

We also decided to make a structural change to the Homes for All Vets program to allow for more leadership opportunities and to make supervisor workloads more manageable. We incorporated some emergency preparedness plans into the new structure, too, so it will be easier to shift in response to community needs

Our program was lucky in that nearly 95% of program processes are already digital, so we didn’t have to make many big operational changes to have our workforce go virtual. Other departments in the agency that still relied on paper files struggled more, but having Home for All Vets staff out of the office allowed for better social distancing and infection control for those employees that did need to be in the building.

“We’re putting much more emphasis on finding candidates that are able to be flexible with the type of work they do, because we don’t know how needs will change over the course of the pandemic.”

– James Sieffert

Atlanta, GA: Hiring and Onboarding in a Hurry

We interviewed Cathryn Marchman, Executive Director of Partners for HOME, the CoC Lead Agency for Atlanta. She spoke with us about how she was able to quickly recruit staff for two new quarantine and isolation sites.

Marchman: Partners for HOME needed to launch an entirely new site (hotels for quarantine and isolation), so we needed all new staff. We borrowed some existing staff from other programs, if they wanted overtime or additional part-time work, but we knew we also needed to find new people. Our challenge was how to recruit and train them quickly.

Marchman: At the time we were preparing to open the quarantine and isolation hotels, we had just 10 staff members, so it was all hands on deck. We worked some long days to put together job descriptions, and put them out to our networks: the CoC, community groups, social media, etc.

We worked together with Gateway [an emergency shelter] to divide the work of rapidly increasing staffing. Partners for HOME would screen and select candidates, Gateway would hire and onboard them. 

We screened applications daily. At first we conducted “on the spot” interviews — meaning we would look through a candidate’s resume and if they were qualified, we would call them for an immediate interview. Even though this saved time because we didn’t have to wait to schedule an interview, we found we weren’t receiving as high quality of candidates as we needed, so we changed our strategy. We circled back to doing scheduled interviews via Zoom and became more selective about the candidates we reached out to. To keep things moving fast, we coordinated with Gateway to reserve a few days per week where we could send new candidates to them to be hired.

Simultaneously, we also had to figure out how we would train the new hires. We began running virtual trainings weekly. Because we were hiring positions specifically to work in quarantine and isolation hotels during a pandemic, we knew it was important to include training on use of PPE and symptom screenings. This wasn’t an area we already knew a lot about, so we partnered with some local med students to create the parts of the training about donning and doffing PPE.

Our quarantine and isolation sites were also set up as projects in HMIS, so new hires needed to be trained in conducting intake, screening, and consent forms. In addition, we added other crucial skills to the training deck like reviewing symptom screenings and crisis management. We were very lucky that we didn’t have to put together the entire training slide deck ourselves. We were able to reach out to a former employee who agreed to assist in preparing the slide deck for the training.

Even with the expedited staffing process we worked out with Gateway, we still had major gaps in staffing numbers. We knew we had to try other avenues. City and County government were very helpful. The City of Atlanta agreed to put our job posting on the Mayor’s social media, which resulted in receiving more qualified applications. Fulton County helped by allowing case managers employed by their jails and behavioral health centers — who were sheltering in place — to conduct virtual case management visits with clients in the quarantine and isolation hotels. The County’s help in providing staff power filled our case management staffing gap.

However, we still had to figure out how to find staff with medical training. We ended up coming up with a staffing model that relied on part-time paramedics. Paramedics looking for work were easy to find in our area; it seems like most of them were on the lookout for part-time work anyway. Because we didn’t have a doctor on staff, we couldn’t employ them to work in a direct service capacity. What we could do was employ them as Quality Assurance Specialists that could use their medical expertise to review symptom screenings and help make determinations about when 9-1-1 should be called.

Paramedics actually ended up being the perfect fit to work in quarantine and isolation hotels. They are well-trained in crisis management, and have some field training in behavioral health. They were all so cool, calm, and collected; nothing seemed to rattle them.

We’ve seen a lot of turnover and had some challenges so we’re still constantly hiring. We’ve also heard from staff that they needed more on-the-job training in addition to the weekly virtual training, so we’re incorporating more of that where we can.  

Marchman: Mainly, that we need more robust training on the front end, followed by job shadowing. We also saw some positive effects of increasing pay to retain and recruit staff. I’ve also been pleasantly surprised by some of our hires. We were able to “take a chance” on somebody without prior experience that we might not have otherwise hired, and they have shined and done a great job. 

Cathryn Marchman Headshot

“We were able to ‘take a chance’ on somebody without prior experience that we might not have otherwise hired, and they have shined and done a great job.”

– Cathryn Marchman


Learn more about our process for vetting information.

Graphic of eye in magnifying glass, created by Adrien Coquet from the Noun Project


What context was the data underlying this recommendation collected in?

  • Built for Zero compiled this information in response to community/partner need for information on how to respond to emergent staffing needs, as identified by questions on the Facebook Homeless Hub and Large City Brain Trust calls.
  • The data that informed this resource comes from interviews with community leaders in Denver, Oklahoma City, and Atlanta.

What context or question do we recommend this resource for?

  • In response to community member questions about handling short staffing and staffing up new facilities during COVID-19, we recommend this resource to spark inspiration in similar communities looking to overcome similar challenges.

What other contexts do we reasonably think this recommendation might apply to, and on what basis?

  • This resource has implications for how staffing challenges can be met not just during the COVID-19 pandemic, but during more general operation circumstances as well.

verified by Gregor Cresnar from the Noun Project


Who reviewed this data, and what are their credentials to assess it?

  • A Built for Zero staff member with over 5 years of experience with the CoC and SSVF programs conducted the interviews and composed this resource.
  • Each interviewee identified was identified by Built for Zero staff members as community leaders that influenced or implemented the innovation highlighted in each conversation.

Graphic of clock by Adrien Coquet from the Noun Project


When was the data underlying this recommendation collected?

  • During the weeks of June 15 and June 22, 2020.

Do we have reason to believe the situation has materially changed since that date, or is likely to change soon?

  • More staffing needs and innovations are likely to emerge as the pandemic continues to affect operations. However, the innovations shared within the resource will not change, as they have already occurred.

Error by Aleks from the Noun Project


What specific component of this resource do we recommend?

  • N/A

Are there any specific elements of this resource we do not recommend?

  • No.

questions by Gregor Cresnar from the Noun Project

Open Questions

What elements of this resource were we unable to assess?

  • We were unable to collect high quality quantitative or qualitative data about the outcome of the innovations highlighted.

What elements of this resource do we want to know more about?

  • The long-term impacts of the innovations.