As the COVID-19 pandemic began to accelerate in late spring 2020, the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC), like every organization in the event industry, was faced with mounting cancellations and declining revenues requiring difficult financial decisions be made. Rather than immediately seek to furlough or lay off employees to save costs, the Center with the assistance of Orange County Mayor Jerry L. Demings and County Administrator Byron Brooks, sought to collaborate with county departments to help the community, keep staff off the unemployment rolls, and ultimately save millions of dollars at the same time. “As chief steward of Orange County resources, it is my goal to be nimble and find ways to be fiscally responsible” said Mayor Jerry L. Demings. “This collaboration helps to prevent layoffs and keep county services functioning uninterrupted.”
As Orange County Government moved swiftly to fight COVID-19 and mitigate its impacts in the community, it was apparent that an incredible amount of additional staff would be needed to implement new programs and initiatives, like the COVID-19 Eviction Diversion, individual and business financial assistance from local CARES Act dollars, personal protective equipment (PPE) distribution, COVID-19 testing and others.
By Feb. 1 of this year, the Center aims to have 190 employees temporarily reassigned, either assisting COVID-19 relief or providing service in other county departments. When the temporary reassignments are combined with the more than 60 vacant positions that the OCCC is leaving unfilled, approximately 55% of the OCCC’s authorized workforce will be off its payroll.
“When options for where to get this additional staff were being discussed, we knew that our Convention Center employees could jump in and be mobilized immediately with minimal training and without having to worry about teaching them the county’s culture or how it operates,” said OCCC Executive Director Mark Tester. “Providing high quality service to clients is what our employees do every day. The only thing that changed for them is who their clients were.”
Dozens of OCCC employees were matched to COVID-19 relief jobs that fit their skillsets and they immediately went to work assisting the community. Since April 2020, these employees have embraced new responsibilities ranging from direct assistance to thousands of residents calling Orange County’s 311 Helpline, to distributing essential PPE items to local small businesses. Other Convention Center employees reviewed business assistance applications and coordinated the logistics of vaccine distribution. From June 2020 through January 2021, OCCC staff have responded to more than 62,000 calls coming into the 311 Helpline.
“Orange County’s response to instantly roll out the services for local residents was timely due to the County’s ability to quickly reassign highly trained employees from the Center to these new areas of need,” said County Administrator Byron Brooks.
Hannah Starner, an Event Manager at the OCCC, is just one of many who have shifted their work focus in support of the county’s response to COVID-19. Since June 2020, Starner has staffed the 311 Helpline, responding to residents and businesses on queries of all types, including the Individual and Family Assistance Program, Small Business Grant, and the county’s Eviction Diversion Program.
“My experience as an Event Manager at the OCCC has provided me with the skills to navigate and embrace change,” said Starner, who was reassigned to Orange County’s Neighborhood Services. “While this year has been a challenge, it has also been an opportunity to learn more. I think I can speak for my entire team when I say we are grateful for the ongoing support from the Convention Center and Orange County Government leadership in sustaining local jobs and protecting our community.”
Because of the success of the employee reassignments and because of the need to further reduce OCCC expenditures as the pandemic persisted into the summer, another idea was offered. The Orange County Utilities Department was experiencing opposite conditions of the convention center in that its business was still booming. Even during a pandemic, people still need water, and sometimes more of it since they were staying at home most of the time. As a result the question was posed: why couldn’t OCCC employees also help other county departments provide their normal services to residents?
“Over the past year everyone in our community and across the nation, has had to be resourceful. Orange County Government and the Human Resources division are no exception,” said Orange County Human Resources Director Ricardo Daye. “To ensure we are able to continue providing top-notch services, we’ve partnered with the Center to assist in matching the talents, skills and knowledge of their staff to fill vacant positions in departments and divisions throughout our organization.”
With the assistance of Orange County Human Resources, the Center worked on determining minimum staffing levels based on current event activity and matching employees to job vacancies throughout the county with similar responsibilities and pay. The end result was the temporary reassignment of dozens of Convention Center employees to various county departments. Rather than go through a lengthy hiring process, departments such as Orange County Utilities, have been able to get immediate help from Convention Center staff and defer those hiring efforts until the reassigned employees need to return to the Center permanently.
“Orange County Utilities appreciates the opportunity to partner with the Convention Center as our employees have been challenged during the pandemic to meet ongoing and growing needs for water, wastewater and solid waste services,” said Orange County Utilities Deputy Director Marc Cannata. “We are grateful to the OCCC employees for taking on similar operations and support roles, and for those who have helped to make it a seamless transition.”
Overall, the Convention Center expects that these staffing adjustments and other cost-cutting measures this fiscal year will result in a savings of at least $17 million. It is likely that figure could grow the longer the temporary employee reassignments remain in place. However, there is emerging optimism in the events industry that a corner is being turned as venues reinvent how they do business and make necessary adjustments to help ensure the safety of their visitors.
“We’re getting the best of both worlds from a financial and humanitarian perspective,” said OCCC Chief Financial Officer Ray Walls. “Our employees get to keep earning a paycheck and doing a variety of things to help Orange County citizens, but the convention center is also saving millions of dollars while we loan out these employees. Financially, these reassignments are more beneficial than a layoff as we don’t have to pay for unemployment costs, and we still have access to our highly trained and experienced staff when the events industry returns full-force.”
The savings Walls referred to is the fact that the salaries and benefits of the reassigned employees are not being paid by the OCCC while they work elsewhere. The costs for those working to assist the county’s COVID-19 relief efforts are being paid for by the federal CARES Act funds received by the county in 2020, while the cost for those employees supporting other county departments are being covered by the specific departments utilizing their services.
Even while providing a regional location for COVID-19 testing and vaccination, the OCCC continues to safely host large and small events for clients, and the 2021 schedule is getting more crowded by the day. The end goal is to get all Convention Center employees back to work providing the customer service that has brought the OCCC so much success.
“Our employees are our lifeblood. They have pivoted in unimaginable ways to support not only our clients, but also one another and our community,” said Tester. “We know brighter days are coming, but today, we must continue to demonstrate agility and leadership to lead our community towards recovery.”
Learn more about how The Center of Hospitality is contributing to the recovery and economic future of Orange County by following the #HeartOfTheDistrict hashtag on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
OCCC | Pandemic Pivot from Orange County Convention Center on Vimeo.