FOR YOUR BENEFIT: YORK HR OFFICE PLAN: ALWAYS KEEP IMPROVING

January 8, 2013 | CUNY Matters, The University

On a recent Monday morning at York College, inside the Academic Core Building, Human Resources Executive Director Barbara Manuel reviewed her day’s schedule.

11 a.m. – Meet with a human resources staff member and a budget officer to plan a review of nearly 1,200 employee records.

2 p.m. – Meet with one of the York College deans to discuss revising job descriptions for employees in her school.

3 p.m. – Meet with the provost and another dean to discuss the evaluation process for tenured faculty.

4 p.m. – Meet with IT staff member on improving the College’s ePAF (electronic Personnel Action Form) system.

It was a light day, Manuel said with a deadpan look. While Manuel focused on big-picture meetings, York’s human resources managers – like their counterparts on every CUNY campus – handled the recruitment and intake of new employees and tended to the essential details of benefits, compensation, training, faculty appointments and adjunct contracts that are essential to those already on the payroll.

York HR Executive Director Barbara Manuel offers some pointers to college assistants Bibi Ally, left, and Nia Challenger.

Need information on your medical and other benefits? See HR. Want to add a health care or dependent care flexible spending account? See HR. Curious about a tax-deferred annuity? See HR. Want to cut the cost or commuting? See HR. Need a tuition waiver to further your education? See HR. Want to expand your professional training? See HR. Have questions about your time and leave? See HR.

On hectic days at York College, HR often serves 30-plus walk-in appointments that include York College employees and also local Queens residents seeking jobs.

Inside the cramped  but sunny HR office, Manuel and her 16-member staff oversee employment matters for the college’s diverse 1,200-member workforce — handling issues ranging from recruitment and hiring; benefits and professional training; processing faculty appointments and adjunct contracts; and more recently helping employees who needed counseling after Hurricane Sandy.

A day with Manuel and her dedicated staff provided a glimpse of the recent transformation of the York College human resources office. Under Manuel’s leadership, in a few years it has doubled its staff, reorganized office responsibilities, launched a website and expanded its mission from processing paperwork to putting more priority on employee satisfaction.

“Our staff is one of our most important assets,” Manuel said. “That includes the faculty and staff, the people who support the college’s mission — which is to educate students. If their needs are not being met as employees, and if we’re not doing everything that we can do to make their work experience one of the best, then we’re not doing what we need to do.”

The human resources office at York College is one of 21 satellite offices serving the faculty and staff of CUNY. Across the city’s five boroughs, each campus community has its own human resources office to better serve the specific needs of each school. The Graduate Center office, located in midtown Manhattan, handles human resources for all CUNY’s professional schools.

In 2009, York College President Marcia V. Keizs conducted a search for an executive director of human resources and Manuel was the successful candidate. Keizs had already made dramatic changes by strengthening academic programs and increasing  full-time faculty. With human resources, the president signaled a move to enhance the college’s administrative side.

Manuel, a graduate of Baruch College, had been working at CUNY’s central office for the Human Capital Management team. She was intrigued by the possibility of working at York, which sits in Jamaica, close to Hollis, where she grew up.

They met at a coffee shop in midtown Manhattan, where Keizs gave Manuel her charge: Turn that office around.

When Manuel first arrived at York’s human resources office, she was surprised to find a staff of six: two supervisors and four office assistants. “There was an HR director — and an assistant director who basically functioned as the assistant director, the benefits officer, the payroll officer and the disciplinary officer,” Manuel said.

Manuel immediately hired more staff, including an experienced benefits specialist and a labor relations manager. Eventually, the staff almost tripled from six people to 17.

“The office has changed drastically,” said Jeannie Simmons, York’s Human Resource Information Systems Unit Specialist. “And I think it’s changed for the better.”

In speaking with human resources staff, Manuel also learned that most managers and assistants were unaware of basic employee policies like limitations on hours for adjunct professors and college assistants. “That was the biggest thing for me,” she said. “When we started talking about the various rules and regulations and guidelines and contracts to some of the managers, they would say, ‘Oh we never knew that.’ So, it was a change in direction. It wasn’t just about putting things in place. It was about training. We had to train managers on the policies, not only at York, but at CUNY.” Manuel developed a new system where human resources assistants were assigned as liaisons to specific academic departments to ensure faculty received accurate information.

Professor Linda M. Grasso, chair of the English Department, praised Manuel’s efforts. “As a department chair, I appreciate Barbara’s attempt to standardize procedures, convey information … and most especially, to solve difficult problems,” Grasso said. “She has been very helpful in conflict situations, explaining to all parties involved, contractual, university, and college policies and mandates.”

Once the human resources staff had become more knowledgeable on policies, Manuel asked the manager of recruitment and employee development, Stephanie Cooper, to start organizing more training workshops and professional development for all York College employees.

In researching the needs of York support staff, Cooper found many employees lacked skills in widely used programs such as Microsoft Word and Excel. In response, she held several workshops in computer training. “We found that there were a lot of long-standing employees who said they took computer training more than 25 years ago,” Cooper said. “Seriously.”

Last fall, Cooper worked with benefits specialist Janelle Mills-Lawrence to launch the York College human resources website — where employees now can find information on benefits, professional development and training, job postings and the human resources staff directory.

More recently, the human resources staff played a significant role in communicating with other York College employees during Hurricane Sandy. In the storm’s aftermath, York College took in nearly 1,000 evacuees, including 250 with medical or mental health needs. Cots were placed throughout the Academic Core Building and in the gymnasium.

But for many York employees, the sight of evacuees living in their workplace was traumatic. As employees walked by the evacuees to get to their offices, some staff members got to their desks and simply burst into tears. In response, employees were referred to CUNY’s Work/Life Program, administered by Corporate Counseling Associates. Others asked if they could stay home until the evacuees had left the campus, Manuel said. “So we advised them that they could take a couple of days off, if that’s what they needed.”

As the new year approached, Manuel contemplated the next phase of the transformation: an ambitious plan to re-design the physical layout of the snug office so that it is more open and welcoming.

“I think we are moving in the right direction,” she said. “What makes you happy as an employee keeps you here… We want employees to want to work here.”