Layoffs are one thing. How do you convince fearful employees to return to work?

 Many Pennsylvania businesses laid off significant chunks of their workforce once Gov. Tom Wolf ordered non-life-sustaining operations to shut down. For those that remained open, few downsizings were as striking as Kimpton’s Hotel Monaco Pittsburgh in Downtown.

Kimpton’s never closed its doors. Pre-pandemic, over 180 employees worked in the hotel and its connected restaurant, The Commoner. But by late March, all but nine managers and a skeleton crew of employees had been laid off.

“It was really hard, just incredibly emotional calls,” said Jenny Booth, the hotel’s people and culture director. “We knew it’d be temporary, but we thought it’d just be a month.”

For Kimpton’s and other businesses, the challenges didn’t just lie in the layoffs; restoring their workplaces has proved complicated, especially when the threat of the virus has made employees cautious to return.

Beth Robosky was tasked with making the return plan for her workplace. She’s the human resources director for Jim Shorkey’s Family Auto Group in Irwin, and once auto sales were permitted to restart in late April, the sales team voiced serious health concerns over their face-to-face jobs.

“Their biggest fear was just being around people,” Ms. Robosky said.

Her plan to put her sales team at ease involved four main parts: instituting the proper cleaning protocols, daily temperature checks, physical distancing and staggered shifts. The sales team was split in half; “Team A” works Monday to Wednesday, “Team B” from Thursday to Saturday.

Sales reps were drawn to the idea of staggered shifts; it would double as a contingency plan for COVID-19.

“If anyone did get sick on one team, you’d be able to bring in the other team,” Ms. Robosky said.

Not everyone returned in May. Twenty people across Jim Shorkey’s 12 locations left their jobs — about half because of virus cautiousness, Ms. Robosky said. Several had family members who were vulnerable or had children at home to worry about.

“The people that were nervous about coming back, we really did try explaining what we had in place, all the cleaning protocols, all the supplies we had on hand. We really tried to make the case,” she said.

Once workers returned, the precautions paid off, big-time. The auto group broke its all-time sales record in May, selling 1,502 cars in 31 days.

They’re still unsure where the record came from. Pent-up demand? Avoidance of public transit? All possible, none confirmed. 

“1,500 was impossible, even before the pandemic. We couldn’t break over that number,” Ms. Robosky said. “We’ve had endless conversations about it because you would not expect it.”

Meanwhile, at Kimpton’s Hotel, demand cratered in March and April, and the timeline to bring back workers was extended. The remaining team, primarily administrators, became Swiss Army knives.

Ms. Booth and the other managers learned how to work the front desk, answer booking calls, and fill needs as they came up. They each still work an overnight shift per week. Twelve- to 14-hour days weren’t unusual in those “dark days,” Ms. Booth said.

“I wouldn’t know what day it was. What shift am I on? What am I doing today? Where am I? Everything kind of turns into a blur,” she said.

Unlike at Jim Shorkey’s, the path to bringing staff back has been gradual. In mid-May, the company began bringing back two employees per week. Once restaurants opened back up, Kimpton’s brought back dozens of workers for the in-hotel restaurant, The Commoner.

Some employees expressed health concerns, as they were taking care of small children or elderly parents at home, Ms. Booth said. Once a relatively large group of employees had returned to work in late May, the excitement was palpable.

“We have to remind them not to hug each other. I know it’s cliche, but we foster a family environment here,” she said.

Those hospitable instincts come back to bite them occasionally. With virus precautions, hotel workers have had to reprogram themselves. Basic habits like helping customers with luggage, performing room service and cleanings, and parking patrons’ cars that were once automatic are either forbidden or worthy of careful consideration.

“We have to tell our guests ‘no’ sometimes, which is hard. We’re not used to saying no,” Ms. Booth said.

Kimpton’s numbers have been recovering. In early August, the staff stood at around 80 people. For other workplaces looking to bring workers back, Ms. Booth emphasizes to be vulnerable with each other, ask how coworkers are doing each day. You never know what someone could be going through.

What must underline everything, though, is mutual compassion. Every day she comes to work, Ms. Booth must be confident in the care and restraint of her teammates.  

“You want to trust that your coworkers aren’t going out and partying with their neighbors, to truly put your faith in everyone you’re with,” she said. “I think we respect each other enough to do that.”

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