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Thursday, Aug 11, 2022

Cedars-Sinai Embraces Flexibility in Roles, Benefits

Few of L.A.’s largest private-sector employers have had to deal with as many employment and workplace challenges over the last 18 months as Beverly Grove-based Cedars-Sinai Health System, which runs Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and more than 40 other medical facilities throughout the region.

Like any large employer, Cedars-Sinai has grappled with handling a remote workforce and keeping employees who are in the workplace healthy and safe.

But Cedars-Sinai, which is the No. 5 largest private-sector employer in L.A. County this year, also runs one of the largest hospitals in the Western United States. Its doctors and nurses have had to treat thousands of Covid-19 patients as repeated Covid waves have swept through the region. And when those workers get sick or burned out, Cedars has gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure there are always enough medical personnel to treat the patients. Also, like nearly every hospital operator, Cedars has had to scramble to obtain enough personal protective equipment for its doctors and nurses.

Handling many of these employee and human resource issues is Andy Ortiz, senior vice president and chief human resources officer for Cedars. The Business Journal talked with Ortiz to get a sense of the scope of these issues.

What challenges has your company faced in transitioning staff to remote work or back to in-person work?   
This pandemic has gone through three stages, and each has posed different challenges. First was the emergency health order to get as many employees as possible out of the workplace. Then there was what we were doing during the height of the pandemic to provide care to all the patients. And finally, there’s what we’re doing now.

How did things settle out as the pandemic progressed?

We had about 10% of our workforce move to a hybrid model, spending about three-fourths of their time at home and one-fourth in the workplace. Only 2.5% of our workforce was able to go fully remote. The other 87% were all patient-facing or doing patient-related work, so they couldn’t work from home.

Over time, the biggest challenge became how to maintain our unique culture when our employees are thrust into Zoom meeting rooms. There was also the issue of our employees being able to collaborate.

How did you work with new hires?
We decided to bring new hires on site for some training before allowing those who are eligible to work from home. The on-site training lasts a couple weeks — and yes, it’s all done with Covid distancing and masking protocols. And this is not just a handful of new employees now and then. We have new employee orientation sessions every two weeks. I lead many of those. We probably have about 100 different people for each biweekly orientation session.

What are you doing in the way of Covid safety protocols for those who must work on site?
We require a lot, starting with daily health checks and screenings for employees. They must report any symptoms and get their temperatures checked. PPE must be worn on site — even for those who have no regular patient contact.

And starting this past Oct. 1, all employees must be vaccinated in conformity with the state mandate. We’re now at about 99% of employees vaccinated. For those that receive a medical or religious exemption, they can continue working here as long as they wear PPE and get tested twice a week.

How have you changed your physical office setups? Have you spaced out workstations, installed touchless entry systems or improved ventilation systems, for example?
We’ve done all of the above and more. We put up plastic shields around workstations and distanced those workstations. That means having some empty cubicles and even some empty offices.
Oh, and when we have meetings, no more than 10 people can be in any single room at any time — no exceptions. And for those 10 people, we take out some chairs to keep the distancing standards. Eating is banned in any meeting, which means no more lunch meetings. And we increased the cleaning of workstations.

Have you changed your employee benefits in the past year to accommodate employees’ changing needs or to compete more effectively in the current market?
During the height of the pandemic when were in crisis mode, we implemented a pay protection program. If you remember, most of our scheduled surgical procedures had been canceled in that early pandemic stage. We had thousands of employees that had no work, and for each and every one of those employees, we made sure they did not lose one hour of pay. Nor did we lay off a single person.
But we did redeploy people. So, for a physician or nurse in the cardiac unit, we retrained them on how to take care of Covid patients. We also took some of our back-office people and redeployed them — (such as) maybe into our food and nutrition departments.

What other benefits did you provide?
We set up a crisis care program. With schools shut down, we reimbursed our employees for child care, elder care and dependent care. They could use the money to pay someone to take care of their dependents so that they could come in to work. And that someone didn’t have to be a professional; it could be a family member, a neighbor.

And then there is what I think is the most important new benefit we provided: our administrative leave program. We provided administrative paid leave for our employees with Covid symptoms so that they did not have to use up their sick days. This made a very big difference to our employees. This was a unique program that I don’t think too many other employers have done.

How difficult has it been to hire — either full-time or contract — enough physicians and nurses to care for patients coming in from the various waves of the Covid pandemic?
It has been incredibly difficult. We took a multipronged approach: our regular recruitment, then hiring traveler nurses at premium rates and then paying premium rates for some of our nursing staff to pick up additional shifts. It all worked though it was definitely challenging, and there were a few days when we were in panic mode about making sure we had enough provider staff. We were fortunate that we had the finances to be able to do this, even with the lack of revenue as our scheduled surgical procedures were canceled or severely cut back.

Have you launched or expanded upon programs to promote diversity and inclusion internally, and what changes have those efforts brought about?
Yes. Even before the pandemic, we had created two positions we never had before. We had hired a chief diversity/inclusion officer to deal with workforce and workplace diversity issues. We also hired our first-ever chief health equity officer whose job it is to make sure we provide equitable health care in the local community.

Since the (protests following George Floyd’s murder in 2020), we’ve stepped up our investments in communities of color. And internally, we also increased investment in employee development programs and expanded our look at pay equity across the organization.

How are you handling cases of physician/nurse burnout as this pandemic has dragged on? 
Every situation has been different. We have had social workers walking the floors to do mental health checks on staff serving Covid patients and counselors here around the clock for those staffing our Covid units. We also partnered with a company called Empathia, which provided an employee assistance program.

There have been some infrequent situations where it has been necessary for us to move people from one role to another in order for them to continue to support the organization. But the vast majority of staff did come to work every day; they have been true health heroes.

What trend(s) in your industry or among your staff’s needs are you monitoring going into 2022?

Well-being issues are top of mind right now, based on employee surveys and what we hear from front-line managers. This includes flexibility to work from home, adjusting work hours, weekly mental health webinars that are also made available online, and other employee assistance programs. We had started implementing some of these programs prior to Covid, but the pandemic accelerated this quite a bit.

Keep reading the 2021 Largest Employers Special Report.

Howard Fine
Howard Fine
Howard Fine is a 23-year veteran of the Los Angeles Business Journal. He covers stories pertaining to healthcare, biomedicine, energy, engineering, construction, and infrastructure. He has won several awards, including Best Body of Work for a single reporter from the Alliance of Area Business Publishers and Distinguished Journalist of the Year from the Society of Professional Journalists.

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