As the pandemic began knocking out swaths of the economy last month, CVS Health Corp.’s chief recruiter, Jeff Lackey, conferred with his contacts at companies that would suffer some of the biggest blows—airlines, hotel companies and retailers.
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His message: I want your people.
CVS—where Mr. Lackey heads up talent acquisition—is now taking on the most ambitious hiring drive in its history. To recruit the 50,000 staffers it needs to meet a coronavirus-fueled surge in business, it is partnering with Gap Inc., Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc., Delta Air Lines Inc. and dozens of other companies to employ their laid-off workers. More than 900,000 people have applied for CVS jobs in just the last few weeks, including roles stocking warehouses and stores, answering phones at call centers or stepping in for CVS staff who end up sick or quarantined.
Across the economy, thousands of workers are being redeployed in one of the fastest labor shifts in postwar history. As the coronavirus reshapes consumer needs and behaviors overnight, some workers are jumping into new roles within their companies. Others are being recruited by new employers through collaborations unthinkable in the intensely competitive labor market that existed just a couple of months ago.
“I’m grateful for the spirit of the partnerships,” Mr. Lackey said. “I tell people, we only have one enemy right now, and it’s the coronavirus.”
The efforts amount to a human-resources challenge for companies moving people around or hiring new employees. They are racing to assess people’s skills and train them for new roles, all at warp speed for what is often a slow-moving bureaucracy within companies.
To pull off the recruiting effort, CVS created dedicated hiring websites for employees at many partner companies and shortened the hiring process to as little as a day or two. The company was flooded with 500% the volume of applications its recruiting websites normally receive. The surge overloaded the system for a few days.
Gap Inc., which recently furloughed 80,000 workers because of store closures, is encouraging those employees to take temporary part-time jobs, including at CVS and a handful of other companies it is collaborating with. Meghan Kelly, head of global talent acquisition, said her team developed a “SWAT team approach” as Gap mapped out the furlough plan. “One stream of work we looked at was, what are the top tier of retailers that are hiring that would potentially be a fit for our associates,” she said.
Though it is uncertain when companies will return to business as usual, Ms. Kelly and other executives say they hope most furloughed employees who have been redeployed elsewhere will return to their original jobs.
Similar collaborations are popping up around the world. Supermarket chain Kroger Co. created an exchange to bring on workers furloughed or laid off from food-service and hospitality companies such as Sodexo, Sysco Corp. and Marriott International. In Germany, grocers Aldi Sud and Aldi Nord signed an agreement with McDonald’s Corp., allowing the burger chain to refer employees for temporary roles at their stores.
A group of major companies including Accenture PLC, Walmart Inc. and Nordstrom Inc. are rolling out another exchange this week that would let those in urgent need of workers tap laid-off or furloughed employees at other participating businesses. Consulting company Mercer LLC, a unit of Marsh & McLennan, is launching a similar initiative.
For some redeployed workers, new roles come with higher risks and more anxieties because many of those jobs involve closer proximity to consumers. Others say they find satisfaction in taking on an essential or other in-demand job amid the pandemic.
At Toronto-based TD Bank, more than 2,000 employees have switched to new jobs temporarily, mostly handling the surge in calls from customers looking for financial relief, such as deferrals of mortgage or credit-card payments, and from the bank’s own employees seeking help for Covid-related concerns, said Melanie Burns, the bank’s senior vice president of talent. In its U.S. operations, the bank moved 450 people from units like automobile finance, where they were mostly processing loan applications, to critical services, such as front-line call-center roles.
Lisa Haasz, a TD Bank human-resources manager, used to spend her days creating staffing plans and career-development programs. She raised her hand in mid-March when the company asked for workers to staff the overloaded human-resources helpline.
The next day, she did a one-hour virtual training session. A few days later, she was taking calls from bank employees seeking guidance because they had been exposed to someone with the virus, or were feeling sick and needed information about HR policies.
“It can be exhausting,” said Ms. Haasz, age 51, who lives in Elkins Park, Pa. “I’m working nights, I’m working weekends, it’s not what I’m used to.” But helping relieve the burden on the staffers who do this work full-time feels good, she said.
After telecom giant Verizon Communications Inc. closed about 70% of its corporate-owned retail locations in March, many store employees had no place to work, said Christy Pambianchi, Verizon’s chief human resources officer. So thousands of hourly staffers now take at-home customer service and sales roles, she said. The company is also encouraging other employees with idle time to complete needed industry certifications or training while they work remotely.
Transitioning people has required a rapid retraining effort. Verizon’s learning and development team has had to quickly develop new virtual training programs.
To reduce training time, businesses are hiring from industries where skills already overlap. Dave Phinney, owner of distillery Savage and Cooke in Vallejo, Calif., stopped producing liquor a few weeks ago and now makes 15,000 gallons of hand sanitizer a week. For that work, he has hired 20 or so former bartenders, wine buyers and waiters to fill plastic jugs with sanitizer and affix caps and labels, and he says he may hire up to 30 more. He pays them $22 to $25 per hour.
“We had a lot of people wanting to volunteer, and it was an odd business decision to say, ‘We’d prefer to pay and put people to work,’” he said.
— Chip Cutter contributed to this article.