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FairfaxBusinessPanel: Changes in workplace more than 'lip service'

Panel: Changes in workplace more than ‘lip service’

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The term “pivot” used to annoy Karen Cleveland, president and CEO of Leadership Fairfax.

Then the pandemic struck. Pivoting became the modus operandi for most businesses, organizations and governmental agencies, which bobbed and weaved to accomplish their missions using remote work and other creative arrangements.

Many of those changes are sticking around, even as the pandemic has faded.

“It’s not just lip service to say we are creating an employee-centric workplace,” Cleveland said June 8 at the 14th Regional Community Partnership Forum on June 8 at George Mason University’s Arlington campus.


The pandemic proved a proverbial baptism by fire for Fairfax County Board of Supervisors member Rodney Lusk (D-Lee). Lusk, who was elected in 2019, recounted how shortly after he began his four-year term in January 2020, supervisors got their first look at a proposed budget that would fund many of their priorities.

But the onset of the pandemic that March forced the board to put those aspirations on hold, go with a more austere budget and navigate a wholly new dynamic. The county adapted by providing computers so that many of its 12,000 employees could work from home.

The highest COVID impacts were in the county’s public-facing, in-person fields of public safety and sanitation, and officials struggled to maintain minimum required staffing, he said.

“We had vacancies of up to 20 percent,” Lusk said. “We had to become a little more creative.”

Another complicating factor: Private companies, such as Amazon, have been luring away county law-enforcement officers to do security work, Lusk said. Rising anti-police sentiment and prosecutions of officers after controversial incidents also have proved contributing factors to the exodus.

The pandemic and subsequent economic downturn especially harmed low-income workers along the Route 1 corridor, Lusk said.

Lusk developed a workforce-development center along that corridor to bolster those workers’ job and wage prospects. The center is due to open in July, but already has found work for five people at $21 per hour, up from their previous $14, he said.

Northern Virginia Family Service also undertook several initiatives during the pandemic to benefit employees and give them more options, said Jacqueline Dendievel, the organization’s executive vice president of human resources.

Many of NVFS’s 350 employees – about 90 percent of whom are women – were able to shift to remote work, she said.

“Our CEO from the get-go said the health, well-being and safety of our staff is first,” Dendievel said.

NVFS leaders have held a “nomination town hall” to recognize outstanding employees, enhanced the agency’s benefits package, lowered the co-pay for mental-health services and extended paid COVID leave.

“Flexibility looks like a lot of different things to a lot of different people,” Dendievel said.

A similar scramble to save jobs and care for employees took place at JK Moving Services, said Andrea Bunch, the company’s vice president of human resources.

Employees had the option of working fewer hours and take home a bit less pay. The company also offered the option of taking two-month-long, unpaid sabbaticals, but with benefits maintained, she said. Meanwhile, the entire executive team took pay cuts.

Work-life balance has become a priority for many people and working from home during the pandemic blurred the distinction between what formerly had been distinctly separate parts of people’s lives.

“The secret is to fully integrate your life and your work,” Cleveland said. “That’s when you get that balance.”

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