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HR is Frazzled But Resilient at the Centers for Disease Control

October 19, 2001
Related Topics: Change Management, Featured Article
If you wonder whether the HR profession can be chaotic and complicated, welcometo the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC is a federal agency, which, among other things, practically eradicatedsmallpox from the world in the 1970s. It's now working -- every hour, every day-- with a myriad of federal agencies to investigate incidents of possible anthraxexposures around the United States. It's also responding to calls from aroundthe country from people concerned about bioterrorism.

"People are using the word 'fried' to describe how they feel," saysSylvia Bell, the CDC's chief of organizational development. "We are preparedto respond to emergencies, but this one is beyond anticipation."

Through it all, there have been few worries about employees quitting becauseof burnout. "This is a phenomenal place," says Bell. "The peoplewho work here, you couldn't make them go home if there's work that needs tobe done. They could make a lot more money somewhere else, but they're here becausethey want to help the world. They have a passion for the health of the world.I find it a daily honor to support people here."

Most of the CDC's approximately 8,500 employees in 170 occupations are in Atlanta,Georgia--normally.

The CDC deployed people to Washington, D.C., and New York, sites of two ofout of the three scenes of terrorist attacks, as well as to Florida. Followingthe World Trade Center murder, the CDC had 24 hours to get trucks to New York.It took them only 12. The trucks were loaded with supplies to help people dealingwith hazardous materials. For HR, that means figuring out what to pay theseemployees, as federal employees receive extra pay for handling hazardous materials.

HR and the anthrax command center
When biological terrorism attacks turned up, so didthe second wave of the CDC's HR effort. The organization has set up an "emergencyoperations center" in Atlanta -- a sort of anthrax war room. Bell saysthat when they asked for volunteers to help staff the center, "We wereoverwhelmed. This is an agency of people who want to help people."

It's a 24-hour operation, which means HR has to deal not only with overtimeissues, but with "night differential" in the federal government,for compensating employees working at all hours of the night. Also, HR has to make sure unionsare notified when employees are re-deployed from one job location to another.

On top of that, the human resources team is handling the inevitable psychologicaleffects this is having on even the most resilient employees. Bell says parentsdon't always want to talk about what's going on when they're at home in frontof the kids, so the workplace is the only venue. "People are very tried,very stressed. They're running on adrenaline. I mean, we're saving lives here."

To this end, HR is coordinating numerous sessions on stress relief. The EAPhas conducted discussion groups in various buildings in Atlanta for employeesto share their feelings. Stress management "lunch and learns" alsoare available. "We've tried to respond to what we perceive to be the need,but not to overdo it or underdo it," Bell says. "We've gotten a lotof feedback that (the EAP and other efforts) have been extremely valuable."

Bell says HR's biggest role, whether at the CDC or in another emergency, isto be a stable place for information for those people that have other thingson their minds.

"HR's role is helping people dealing with the crisis directly, managersand employers who are focused on the task. HR needs to think for them aboutwhat the HR implications are of everything they do, and answer the questionsbefore they're even asked. We can think about it by considering possible HRsolutions. What are the flexibilities we can offer managers they might not havethought of? I'm talking about work assignments, schedules, helping people dealwith stress--that sort of thing. We've had a massive shift in how people aredeployed, both in terms of hours, responsibilities, and roles. It was chaosat first and is now very orderly."

Now on to recruiting
The CDC also is turning its attention to a potentialrecruiting and hiring binge. This may mean seeking "emergency hiring authority"to quicken the process a federal agency would normally go through when hiring.

HR will have to figure out how to get new hires through background checks quickly.The normal process, through the FBI, may be too slow. Bell's been through thisbefore, when she prepared for a possible terrorist attack at the 1996 Olympics inAtlanta.

At the same time, the CDC is dealing with a deluge of calls from the public,from doctors, and from the media. This has meant some workforce planning forHR. Media specialists, for example, have had their schedules reworked into a seven days a week (four-days-on,three-days-off) schedule.

Bell says the CDC has been shaped by previous public-health incidents, from Lymedisease to foodborne illness. The CDC, she says, has an excellent emergency-preparednessplan, and it paid off. "You cannot have enough emergency responses andprocedures," she says. "It was a huge crisis but our response to thathas really shown our agency at it's best."

There is more information on dealing with crises available, and you can watchthe Workforce Week newsletter and Workforce magazine for a large amount of upcoming, additionalinformation on HR's role in helping businesses recover.

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