Federal Emergency Management Agency employees received strong backing from their agency in 2020 as they responded to the worst public health crisis in a century and simultaneously dealt with a record number of natural disasters and the most active Atlantic hurricane season in history.
Employees gave FEMA a 2020 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government ® score of 90.3 out of 100 in a new workplace category measuring the support they received during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
FEMA exceeded the government-wide COVID-19 response score of 86.1 and outperformed the government average on pandemic-related issues dealing with employee well-being, the provision of job resources, agency performance and supportive leadership. The agency also far outpaced its parent, the Department of Homeland Security, which registered a COVID-19 score of 80.0, and it did better than all but two of the DHS subcomponents on this issue.
At the onset of the pandemic, FEMA moved to a hybrid work model, held daily videoconference calls to communicate important information, sent telework kits to every employee and steadily increased usage of virtual collaboration tools.
Ray Acurso, the senior director in FEMA’s Office of the Chief Administrative Officer, said the agency was able to “give people a feeling of connectivity even though we were further apart. We were actually communicating more.”
At the regional level, FEMA officials said communication with staff members scattered across the country and with state and local partners was critical to keep employees engaged, informed and prepared to handle a never-ending string of public emergencies.
“We utilized our technology and our screens. Our connectedness to our FEMA Integration Teams – what a success that was for us,” said Bonnie Garfias, FEMA’s Region VIII senior advisor. The FEMA Integration Teams provide on-site technical and training assistance to state partners.
FEMA also quickly ensured that workers on the frontlines felt supported and safe. The agency was one of the first to implement COVID-19 testing, and it organized responder lodging camps with medical support and quarantine areas on-site.
During 2020, there were 230 presidentially declared emergencies, passing the previous high of 128 declarations in 2011. FEMA’s National Response Coordination Center was activated for a record 314 days, and more than 5,300 staff members were deployed to support the pandemic response activities that included the nationwide delivery of critical medical supplies.
In addition, FEMA deployed more than 5,000 employees to support both Atlantic and Pacific hurricane responses while also dealing with the largest wildfire in Colorado’s recorded history and five of the 10 largest wildfires in California’s history.
Although FEMA received high marks for its COVID-19 response, it’s 2020 Best Places to Work engagement score measuring employee overall satisfaction with their jobs and organization was 66.9 out of 100, 2.1 points below the government-wide score of 69.0. This gave FEMA a ranking of 286 out of 411 agency subcomponents, an improvement of 36 spots from 2019 when it ranked 322. DHS, FEMA’s parent agency, remained in last place among 17 large agencies with a Best Places to Work engagement score of 61.1.
On the specific workplace issue of effective leadership, employees gave FEMA a score of 63.6 out of 100, with senior leaders rated at just 57.6.
Nonetheless, 85.7% of FEMA employees surveyed agreed or strongly that their agency is successful at accomplishing its mission, 85.1% said the people they work with cooperate to get the job done and 87.6% said they know how their work is related to agency goals.
“If you can tie someone’s day-to day-action to the purpose of FEMA’s mission, it gives them a feeling of accomplishment when they are done. It gives them a sense of drive and purpose while they’re going through the actions,” Acurso said.
Deanne Criswell, confirmed in April as the new FEMA administrator, said she is committed to improving employee job satisfaction and commitment, putting “people first” and capitalizing on some of the lessons learned during the pandemic.
Criswell said FEMA’s leadership team is “taking actions that will contribute to an environment where people want to come to work and where they feel like they have a safe environment to not just do their work, but to be innovative, creative and contribute to helping people before, during and after disasters.”
She said this includes a commitment to employee career advancement, recognition for good work and diversity and inclusion.
“I think that we have the most amazing workforce in the federal government,” Criswell said. “It’s the most dedicated group of professionals that are truly committed to our mission.”
This profile was written by Partnership for Public Service staff member Heather Gunter