A Blog by Jonathan Low


Feb 23, 2021

How Pandemic Alliances Between Companies Hiring and Laying Off Limit Job Loss

Among the companies participating are Amazon, CVS, Hilton, Gap, Uber, Lyft, United Airlines, Albertsons, Fidelity, MGM Resorts, Walgreens, Arby's, Buffalo Wild Wings, Regal Cinemas, Jimmy John's, Marriott, Delta Airlines, JetBlue Airlines, Kohl's, the Chicago Cubs baseball team, Upjohn and Accenture. JL

Joann Lublin reports in the Wall Street Journal:

When pandemic-related shutdowns devastated some industries and turbocharged others last spring, dozens of employers joined forces to match idled workers with open jobs. Companies with urgent staffing needs in industries such as healthcare, grocery and e-commerce formed partnerships with companies in hard-hit sectors such as hospitality and retail to recruit workers who had been furloughed or laid off. The partnerships have matched many thousands of workers with open jobs. Amazon selected tens of thousands of workers from 21 U.S. corporate partners.  “This strategy will outlast Covid-19.”

Unusual hiring alliances created by U.S. businesses in 2020 are now bearing fruit.

When pandemic-related shutdowns devastated some industries and turbocharged others last spring, dozens of employers joined forces to match idled workers with open jobs. Companies with urgent staffing needs in industries such as healthcare, grocery and e-commerce formed large-scale matchmaking partnerships with companies in hard-hit sectors such as hospitality, retail and airlines to recruit workers who had been furloughed or laid off

Almost a year later, the partnerships have matched many tens of thousands of workers with open jobs, according to several companies involved in them. And labor specialists say they could be a model for future hiring alliances among employers.

“It’s really a very promising practice,’’ says Jane Oates, president of the nonprofit WorkingNation and an assistant secretary in the Labor Department during the Obama administration. “This strategy will outlast Covid-19,” she says, as it likely will take at least three years for the U.S. to regain lost jobs.

‘A great fit’

CVS Health Corp. formed hiring partnerships with 64 U.S. employers—including Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc. and Gap Inc.—as it raced to fill open positions in its stores, warehouses and call centers amid a coronavirus-fueled surge in its business last year. The pharmacy and insurance giant created dedicated hiring websites for its partners’ displaced workers and streamlined the selection process for some jobs. Of the more than 100,000 people whom CVS recruited from March to December last year, about 3,700 came from the new partnerships, according to a spokeswoman.

Amazon.com Inc. estimates it selected tens of thousands of workers from 21 U.S. corporate partners such as Uber Technologies Inc., Lyft Inc. and United Airlines Holdings Inc. as it went on a hiring spree last year, placing more than 400,000 people in permanent U.S. jobs to handle soaring demand for at-home shopping.

The unprecedented alliances allowed Amazon to “quickly gain access to a skilled workforce,’’ says Ardine Williams, Amazon’s vice president of workforce development. “For instance, workers from the hospitality industry bring a strong customer obsession—which is a great fit for Amazon.’’ CVS and Amazon say they don’t know whether their new hires are making more or less than at their previous employers because they don’t ask candidates for such information.

Other companies, including grocer Albertsons Cos., Fidelity Investments Inc. and Walgreens, a CVS rival owned by Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc., also have used job-pairing alliances to find new hires amid the pandemic.

Albertsons says it has recruited at least 1,400 staffers from 23 corporate partners, including Hilton, MGM Resorts International, Regal Cinemas and Inspire Brands Inc., whose portfolio includes the Arby’s, Buffalo Wild Wings and Jimmy John’s restaurant chains.

Fidelity launched pilot projects with Hilton, Marriott International Inc., Delta Air Lines Inc. and JetBlue Airways Corp. Most of the new hires landed customer-service spots, a Fidelity spokeswoman says, although she couldn’t give a specific number.

Walgreens estimates roughly 6,200 employees arrived from 50-plus partners, including retailer Kohl’s Corp., Hilton, Gap and the Chicago Cubs. Walgreens plans to keep hiring this way for the indefinite future “because it has been so successful,’’ says Chief Human Resources Officer Hillary Leisten.

The partnerships taught Walgreens to be nimble about hiring and integrating part-time staffers, a spokesman says. The company also discovered a new set of applicants from the hospitality industry with “soft skills” that transfer well to retailing, he says.

In a global matchmaking endeavor, meanwhile, consulting giant Accenture PLC and three U.S. companies in April introduced a business-to-business exchange called People + Work Connect that pairs hiring employers with those that are letting workers go.

The free online platform quickly attracted 273 employers from 93 countries. The platform contains approximately 400,000 jobs, which represent employers’ openings and positions formerly held by job seekers.

“Accenture enjoys economies of scale that individual companies generally don’t,’’ because its platform pools information from so many businesses, says Susan Houseman, vice president and research director of the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.

Innovative model

During prior recessions, businesses never collaborated on a large scale to help workers find jobs, labor economists say.

A downturn usually “is an opportunity to let your least important workers go,” and that discourages other employers from recruiting them, says David Deming, a public-policy professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School who specializes in weak labor markets.

Today’s cooperative effort “is quite unique to this recession,” says Upjohn’s Ms. Houseman. She points out that the pandemic bifurcated the economy and crippled government centers that normally assist layoff victims.

The CVS approach, in particular, “represents a very innovative model worth imitating’’ because it can shorten how long individuals remain jobless, says Ben Damerow, a division head at the Upjohn Institute.

Although he doubts nationwide matchmaking will outlast this downturn, he does think employers involved in the partnerships will have gleaned lessons about expedited hiring processes. Those lessons include the importance of interviewing applicants promptly and not delaying “onboarding” of new picks.

Hilton, which furloughed 45,000 of its 60,000 U.S. employees at some point during 2020 and laid off 3,900 others, formed hiring alliances with 180 North American employers to help the affected workers. The hotel firm chose CVS as one of its 29 “premier” company partners because it liked its approach.

“Staffing doesn’t always have to be a game of winners and losers [for employers],” says Jeff Lackey, CVS’s vice president of talent acquisition. “We can create a win-win-win by offering jobs to qualified candidates, brand protection for their prior employer and talent to the hiring company.’’

Hilton received weekly tallies about its employees switching to CVS. And Mr. Lackey fulfilled a promise to alert those recruits when Hilton initiated furlough recalls, according to a spokeswoman from CVS.

Laura Fuentes, Hilton’s chief human-resources officer, says she hopes many idled colleagues will come back once the hospitality industry recovers. But Hilton recognizes the risk that some may not return because “we’ve introduced people to great companies and them to well-trained hospitality people,” she says.

By year-end, Hilton had rehired about 100 of the 3,900 staff members it laid off. More than 20,000 of its employees remain furloughed, the company says.

Fresh start

Not everyone redeployed via matchmaking arrangements may return to their previous workplace—especially if they switch fields.

Consider Gerardo Muñoz, a CVS pharmacy technician hired from Gap. Technicians typically are hourly workers licensed to assist pharmacists with filling prescriptions or answering customer questions.

Mr. Muñoz worked at a Gap store in Skokie, Ill., for about five years. He advanced from sales associate to key holder specialist, an administrative role.

In early spring, Gap furloughed 80,000 workers because of store closures. Among them was Mr. Muñoz. The struggling retailer soon cut 15% of its workforce in North American offices.

Gap offered to connect affected employees with its more than 20 U.S. hiring partners, including CVS. Mr. Muñoz remembers being attracted by CVS’s customized website—“it had a big Gap logo”—plus the chance to enter healthcare.

Last June, the freshly licensed technician joined a CVS pharmacy in Niles, Ill. Mr. Muñoz, 25, so enjoys his job that he turned down Gap’s subsequent invitation to return. “Almost everything I do is helping our patients [to] improve their health,’’ he says.


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