Our Team is Our Path Forward

By Ashley M. Cassidy, PHR, SHRM – CP | Associate Vice President of Employee Success, Atlanta Humane Society and CJ Bentley | Vice President of Animal Welfare, Atlanta Humane Society

As the situation with COVID-19 continues to evolve rapidly, at the Atlanta Humane Society our highest priority is taking care of our team members – staff, volunteers, supporters – who enable us to do the work we love, of taking care of animals in need. Challenging times, like the present, give us the opportunity to go beyond the norm in animal and people care.

On March 2nd, the first two cases of the novel coronavirus were confirmed in Georgia. That week, the Atlanta Humane Society began drafting a detailed and comprehensive COVID-19 response plan to guide our steps should the virus impact our organization. Little did we realize that the complexities of this situation would extend far beyond what we could comprehend and put on paper at that point in time.

Our plan outlined measures to be taken according to three levels – (1) Educate/ Plan/Prevent, (2) Heighten Awareness/Modify Operations, and (3) Operate with One or More AHS Facility Closures. Measures included practicing prevention to keep our staff, volunteers and visitors healthy, ensuring appropriate levels of inventory including cleaning supplies, medications, vaccines, food and enrichment supplies, scheduling staff and utilizing fosters to maintain quality animal care and addressing how we would compensate our employees through various scenarios.

As a measure of extreme caution, we made the decision to close our Adoption and Intake programs beginning March 16th. Then, in what seems like moments, we quickly found ourselves implementing Level 3 of our plan. In the short time since, the collective animal welfare community and our world at large has experienced how dynamic and complex this situation truly is.

As leaders, it is our duty to pull together and set the positive tone that will guide our path forward. Gone are the days of “business as usual” …for the time being. So, what are we doing now?

Animal Care and Operations

Our animal care teams, and management are nothing short of amazing. They continue to come in to work and provide for the animals in our care. Being closed to the public has allowed us to make adjustments to staff schedules, condensing the workday, while maintaining the number of regular work hours so as not to impact employees’ pay. During this time, we are deep cleaning, training, and providing extra enrichment for the animals – all while practicing social distancing, preventative personal hygiene and constant disinfecting.

To that end, our Operations Team has posted signs on each doorway in all of our shelter locations indicating the appropriate “human care capacity” for each room.  Our “Pod Teams,” or designated groups of individuals, have been directed to stay home and engage in specific projects. This contingency provides a back-up should staff currently providing animal care and support in-shelter become ill. Thereby, the Pod Teams allow for healthy staff to pick up the animal care duties if needed.  We are also developing a schedule whereby shifts of people are working together consistently, to help ensure our ability to limit exposure.

Besides deep, deep cleaning, our Operation Team is taking advantage of the time to create video and web-based training opportunities for our entire staff.  Many of the designated trainers are developing these presentations at home.  To help keep others working at home engaged – while the customized trainings are being developed – AHS is utilizing our subscription to the @Dove video trainings as well as requiring all members of the team to become Fear Free certified.  This on-line course is free to shelters and can be easily be taken from home. Soon, our entire operations team will be Fear Free certified! 

We have also organized and assessed our SOP status.  With some areas needing updates, and others needing creation, we have divided up the SOPs into “chunks” and assigned individuals to proofread, draft, edit – whatever is needed.   Deadlines for each section have been created and posted on a SmartSheet for everyone to access and update.  Some work teams have established daily calls to ensure everyone stays on track and deadlines are met. Those working from home appreciate the connection to their teammates.

AHS also maintains an active list of “the next day projects.” That list has been added to the SmartSheet and individuals interested in spearheading writing/researching a specific project plan are welcome to do so – recruiting their own small work teams, and preparing a program description that will be presented to the Director team when things “get back to normal.”

Overall, we’re finding that the opportunity to create trainings, develop new programs and stay connected via video conferencing is helping to keep things positive at AHS.

Our teams providing affordable veterinary care to the public have limited their services to sick pets and those needing immediate attention. They have also implemented pet drop off and pick up schedules to limit people interaction. 

Administration and Operational Support

We are fortunate to have IT systems and networks in place that allow for the majority of our business and administrative functions including community support (call and resource center), fundraising, marketing, accounting, administration and human resources to be done remotely. Employees in these roles are primarily working from home while staying connected through Microsoft Teams (calls and video conferencing).

Communication

Communication is essential. Each day brings new circumstances that we must navigate as best we can – in some cases with little or no precedent to guide us. We have a responsibility to our teams to provide timely, honest and balanced messaging.

At AHS, we are committed to providing our employees with the information that they need. We are using a variety of communication channels to be sure they have access to what they need, when they need it. This includes email, SharePoint (our organizational intranet site), Microsoft Teams, Kaizala, AlertMedia (mass email/phone/text/social media messaging) and social media via our private Staff Facebook group.

Our People

Our priority continues to be the safety and wellbeing of our team members. Essential animal care and business operations must carry on, but as limitations resulting from the virus become more widespread, each of us is being affected in new and different ways. Some may become sick, may have to take care of sick family members, may fall into a high risk category or live with others in high risk groups and need to isolate themselves, while others may have to stay home to care for children who are no longer able to go to school or daycare.

We are committed to doing what we can to lessen some of the negative impact that our employees may be feeling.

We are thankful that we can provide AHS team members with their full regular pay through April 5th, regardless of reduced hours or an inability for the employee to work due to personal circumstances. Employees will not need to utilize their PTO or take unpaid time off. While we don’t know what lies ahead in the days beyond April 5th, we will continue to do our best to make the appropriate business decisions, keeping our people at the forefront.

In addition to the “normal” work at hand, those working in management and Human Resources are also being faced with a myriad of decisions to make, each with its own unique legal implications. The COVID-19 virus has put us in a place where we must appropriately navigate regulations outlined through the ADA, FMLA, OSHA, HIPAA, Worker’s Compensation and the EEOC, among others, simultaneously with little or no precedent to guide us.

We may be faced with questions about lay-offs, furloughs, unemployment insurance or more permanent reductions in force. Finding the answers to these questions will not be easy. But the animal welfare community is one made of good people and strong leaders who bring their best each day.  Moving forward, we will continue to rely on the guidance and resources provided by the CDC along with other federal, state and local authorities in addition to our industry experts.

As we navigate these unusual times, we must remember that the basics still apply.

Employees are people first and should be treated that way. The following actions may seem simple but are critical and meaningful:

  1. Check in.
  2. Be understanding and let them know that you are with them in this.   This is so important, as we’re learning, emotional support of our teams is of utmost importance and preventing panic, overreaction due to stress, and accelerated burnout are all prevalent. 
  3. Be sure they are aware of available resources like telemedicine through your insurance provider or assistance from your Employee Assistance Plan (EAP). 
  4. Be sure they have the information and tools they need to do their jobs, even if we are still figuring out what those needs are as we go.
  5. Be honest. Again, we’re in this together.
  6. Ask for their insight and suggestions. We can find value in each perspective.

As challenging as this time may seem, we will prevail while learning new and valuable lessons along the way. Practice prevention, stay united, stay positive and stay well.

About the Authors

CJ Bentley currently serves as the Atlanta Humane Society’s VP of Animal Welfare. Prior to Atlanta Humane, CJ spent 18 years at the Michigan Humane Society, first in their canine behavior department and eventually as their Sr. Director of Operations. She has also served as a past ED for the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT) and was instrumental in developing and instructing the canine-based curriculum for Oakland University’s (MI) “Animal Welfare in Animal Assisted Therapy” certificate program.

Ashley M. Cassidy, PHR, SHRM, has led Human Resources for the Atlanta Humane Society since 2011. Through her work, she strives to create a sound infrastructure and support a thriving culture of learning, innovation and growth. Ashley earned her B.A. from Auburn University in Political Science and Masters of Public Administration from Troy University.


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