Dear Students, Families, Faculty and Staff: In recent days, there has been a renewed and palpable sense of energy on our campus. Many of us are feeling optimistic for the future, especially as more and more members of our community…
Highlight the Heroes Part 2: Staff Members Display Ingenuity, Determination, Teamwork in Face of COVID-19 Pandemic
As the novel coronavirus took hold in the United States and locally nearly a year ago, many members of the campus community had to reimagine countless processes, solve new and challenging problems, work together in ways previously unheard of, and step up in ways large and small to continue protecting the health and well-being of those who call Syracuse home. Our series continues with the stories of people and teams that have risen to the task and shown what it means to be Orange.
Keeping the ‘Human’ in ‘Human Resources’
The coronavirus signaled a seismic shift in how the University supports and manages its workforce. Director of Labor Relations and Labor Counsel Denise Dyce in the Office of Human Resources (HR) contributed to this effort in two major ways: first, ensuring that our essential employees working on campus throughout the pandemic were kept safe; and then leading a team within HR to bring others safely back to work last summer once our reopening plans received approval from the state.
“The scope of my normal day-to-day functions significantly expanded in the time of COVID,” Dyce says. “Understanding the process of COVID-related leave, developing processes for when employees had exposures or suspected exposures and working with departments to enact new protocols—like social distancing, mask wearing, conducting the daily health screening—and continuing to develop our staff without large in-person gatherings.”
Working to bring the majority of employees back to campus last summer required interpretation and implementation of state-released guidelines, and brought opportunities for innovation, thinking differently, examining best practices among the University’s peer institutions and learning everything there was to know about the pandemic and how to keep employees safe.
Dyce attributes the success of the University’s efforts to keep staff safe (COVID-19 cases have been very low among employees) to the excellent teamwork and outside-the-box thinking used by her team and others across campus. “I care about what we do here and I care about our people,” she says. “We owed it to them to be creative, to accommodate folks where we could and to keep everyone as safe as possible.”
Increasing Communication and Building New Relationships
For Karess Gillespie, assistant director in the Office of Student Living, the biggest change has been in how her team communicates information and changes to students living on and off campus.
“We’ve had to be more detailed and consistent in communication in order for both staff and students to feel supported,” she says. “Knowing that anxiety and uncertainty is at the forefront has prompted us to think through the impact and goal of a communication more effectively, to take our time versus just fixing the problem.” Communicating about students isolating and quarantining across various teams became of utmost importance to ensure staff has the information needed to effectively work with students.
2020 also brought the new challenge of staying connected with colleagues, students and parents in the virtual world. “I have found new value in speaking to someone over the phone to talk out what they are experiencing,” Gillespie says. Increased use of technology has also provided an unexpected benefit: Gillespie noted, and others have echoed, that over the past year she has met and collaborated with different people from more areas of the University than she would in a typical year and built more consistent relationships with colleagues. “Creating new partnerships and working together more closely helps all of us to enhance our work with students,” she says.
Ensuring the Physical Environment Is Clean, Safe and Well-Stocked
The team in Environmental Health and Safety Services (EHSS) quickly pivoted at the onset of the pandemic to aid the University’s COVID-19 response. Since April, EHSS Director Becky Ponza and her staff have supported the procurement and distribution of PPE and cleaning supplies, including the task of reviewing all cleaning products, masks and other supplies to ensure they met public health standards.
Occupational Health Coordinator Graham Smith leads distribution of supplies and is out daily delivering masks, hand sanitizer, wipes and other cleaning supplies across campus. Early in the pandemic, when cleaning supplies were hard to find, EHSS staff members had to get a bit creative. Hazardous Waste Assistants Luke Fiaschetti and Michael Persson used drums of disinfectant to fill smaller bottles and make disinfecting wipes for use at the Barnes Center at The Arch and in the Department of Athletics.
“We helped to answer hundreds of COVID-related questions and concerns from students, faculty and staff,” Ponza says. “The entire EHSS team pitched in to prepare guidance for cleaning protocols, proper use of PPE, reopening research labs, and many other areas to help sustain safe University operations during the pandemic.”
Working in tandem with Ponza and the EHSS team was Safety Manager Kelly Miller in Facilities Services. Miller’s role is ensuring all Facilities-related staff—including grounds, maintenance and custodial—are implementing safe work practices. As the pandemic emerged and progressed, it became evident to Miller that in order to keep these teams safe, the University would need to move quickly to secure PPE, cleaning and disinfection products and all available sanitation measures.
“My job duties swiftly expanded to include identifying sources, negotiating product quantities and pricing, and securing funding to obtain all the necessary material and supplies to protect our staff and the larger campus community,” Miller says. Because of the demand surge for many of these products, vendors had put limitations and restrictions on certain items. She began working her relationships with multiple vendors and brokers in order to find adequate supplies to meet the University’s needs.
“I consider our ability to identify, procure and distribute all the necessary PPE, sanitation supplies and cleaning products needed for the University a win,” Miller says. “Having these products available has allowed us to keep our entire Facilities Services staff—all of whom are designated essential—on campus and working throughout the pandemic. This provided us with the resources necessary to reopen our campus and bring the student body back to a clean, safe and healthy environment for learning.”
The teamwork between Facilities Services and EHSS, with the backing of University leadership, was critical to reaching the goal of bringing students back to campus for in-person learning, Miller adds. “Further, I’d like to recognize the Business, Financial and Administrative Services leadership, managers and supervisors for their unending support throughout the ongoing pandemic.”
Behind the efforts of EHSS and Facilities Services to acquire enough PPE and cleaning/sanitation materials to supply our campus was Vince Patriarco, executive director of purchasing. Patriarco assembled a “PPE SWAT team” to procure items needed by campus partners, some of which was required by the state to reopen campus.
Purchasing staff members Bonnie Townsend, Tony Russo, Karla Salmonsen and Ian Jones had their marching orders from Patriarco: to get whatever was needed by our EHSS and Facilities Services teams and the COVID Project Management Office to keep our campus safe. “I’m really proud of the team. We had to get creative, we had to call upon relationships that we’ve had for a long time and build some new ones,” says Patriarco.
The purchasing team also jumped in to assist with sourcing the necessary supplies for the University’s COVID-19 testing program, which continued to shift and evolve as the public health team moved testing in-house between the fall and spring semesters.
Patriarco says that none of this happened in a silo, but rather was the result of many different teams and individuals moving toward a collective goal. “Between the leadership of Vice Chancellor Michael Haynie and his COVID response team, Dr. Karen Nardella and LeeAnne Lane in the Barnes Center, Dr. Ramesh Raina and others overseeing the testing laboratory, EHSS, Facilities Services, the wonderful folks at the Hawkins Warehouse receiving all of the deliveries … the amount of effort and communication going on across campus to order everything that was needed was tremendous,” he says.