For many employers, hiring new workers during the COVID-19 pandemic and its unsettled aftermath has proved a challenge. Human resource executives who need to hire in a hurry might want to consult with Katrina M. Jones, who, as senior vice president for human resources and talent management for Acacia Network—New York City’s largest Latino-led social-services nonprofit—is sometimes called upon to staff a large, new shelter in barely a weekend’s time.
That’s what happened in the mid-2010s when then-New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a rapid-fire initiative to get a large homeless population off the streets. Jones recalled that city officials called Acacia Network on a Thursday and asked them to open a facility by next week.
“When they call, we say ‘Yes’ and then we figure out how to do it,” Jones recalls with a laugh. “We needed to hit our number [of new staffers], which was 200, so on that Thursday, I came from the C-suite and I brought the team together and I said, ‘This is the goal … ’ We said, ‘All hands on deck,’ and we got into the groove immediately and everybody had an assignment.” The next day, applicants began arriving at the makeshift hiring center that Jones and her HR team had set up, and the new shelter was up and running days later.
And this was not a one-time occurrence. Jones and her staff at Acacia Network—which provides an array of community services around healthcare, substance-abuse treatment and other needs of some 150,000 clients in America’s largest city—conducted similar crash operations to launch COVID-19 isolation shelters for the city, opening three in three weeks. Earlier this summer, Acacia was similarly tasked by the city with accommodating migrants bussed from Texas and dropped off in New York.
Jones’ leadership in expanding the workforce at Acacia Network—which had roughly 700 workers when she arrived at the organization a decade ago and has swelled to more than 3,000, with plans to hire hundreds more in the coming months to deal with New York’s array of social issues—is a key reason she’s been named to HRE’s 2022 HR Honor Roll.
The accolades for Jones are also a recognition of the challenges she has faced not only in guiding Acacia Network’s expansion despite the hiring headwinds of the pandemic but also the added complications of addressing moral and social concerns around both employment and providing services in predominantly Black and Latino underprivileged neighborhoods in the Bronx and Manhattan. One recent Acacia Network effort piloted by Jones involved working with New York’s Fortune Society—an organization dedicated to reintegrating former inmates back into society—to launch a program that offered internships and training opportunities for people recently released from city jails, with potential job opportunities at the network.
“We have a person working here in HR from the Fortune Society—this is, I think, her fourth week—and she’s being exposed to a field that she thought she would never be able to work in because of, unfortunately, bad decisions that she made,” Jones explains. “But we welcome her and we allow her to learn—whether we decide to keep her or if she wants to stay with us after this—she’s gained valuable work experience.”
Jones herself can relate to finding a career path in people management somewhat by accident. A native of Barbados who moved with her family to the United States when she was 3 and grew up just north of New York City in Westchester County, N.Y., Jones’ first job after earning a bachelor’s degree was as executive assistant to the COO of a nearby nursing home.
She found herself working often on HR issues and, when her boss was let go by the nursing home, her parting request was that Jones be kept on to run that department. She eventually earned her master’s degree in human resources management from Manhattanville College and a certificate in HR leadership from Cornell’s School of Industrial Relations.
As CHRO at Acacia, Jones deals with many of the same problems that confront her peers in the corporate world. She recently oversaw negotiations with a union representing Acacia employees that averted a strike, and during the pandemic, the nonprofit has faced new challenges because of so many would-be workers seeking hybrid or work-from-home positions, when most work with clients must still be performed face-to-face.
Jones says her team at Acacia is looking at solutions such as, “Can we get our time in in three days or four days instead of a five-day workweek? Or, how can we offer benefits that cover more family members? So, we’re looking at things like that, that we have not thought of in the past—things like vacation sharing, or if the employee had a catastrophic event and they don’t have enough PTO, can we share our PTO?”
But a typical workday for Jones also involves projects that reflect the unique social mission of Acacia, such as recently planning and helping launch a job-placement program geared around military veterans. She also works with outside umbrella groups—such as the Bronx Partners for Healthy Communities Workforce Subcommittee and a diversity initiative of the Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Providers of New York State, Inc.—to strengthen Acacia’s alliances and learn best practices.
Jones says she finds the biggest challenge—and reward—of people management at an agency like Acacia is building a workforce that shares these values.
“We have to be the gatekeeper, the goalie, to make sure that we vet the individuals properly and that they’re coming in to bring their best to the job because it can be stressful,” Jones says of expanding the Acacia workforce. “They’re working with individuals who, unfortunately, have had setbacks in their life—whether it is substance abuse [or] people who have lost their homes—so we have to make sure we have people that are trauma-informed and can provide the level of care, compassion and empathy that individuals need.”