JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas –
A unit focused on quick and accurate payments to Airmen turned a workplace challenge presented by the Coronavirus pandemic into an opportunity to showcase the Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center's value of responsiveness.
With COVID-19 quickly impacting its base and local community, Travel Pay Processing at Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota, encountered a critical 24-hour deadline to develop a plan to implement social distancing measures and transition the 130-person team to telework status. The deadline forced the organization, formerly known as the Air Force Financial Services Center, to consider an approach it had never attempted and previously believed to be impossible due to limitations in technology.
“When General Wilcox talks about doing the impossible, he brags about our team at Ellsworth because they make the impossible possible,” said Linda Alcala, AFIMSC financial operations chief.
Bob Bozarth and Teresa Stokes tackled the telework challenge head-on. They devised and implemented a plan to upgrade every laptop in the organization for access to a Virtual Private Network that was more conducive to operating the programs the team uses to process claims.
“Our biggest challenge was that we could re-image only nine of the 130 laptops per day on the network due to technical limitations, and it took two weeks to complete updates for the entire team,” said Bozarth, travel pay support branch chief. “We displayed a desire to make it work and sought every avenue to find the routes to get us teleworking.”
Using a combination of split shifts and administrative leave to initially address the base and Center for Disease Control’s social distancing guidance, the team reduced the number of people in the building all at one time during the two-week period, said Stokes, travel pay branch chief.
“We implemented a swing shift that, while not very popular, our team knew had to be implemented for their health because all of our people work in a cubicle environment on one floor,” Stokes said. “Over the two-week period, our employees understood where we needed to go, and they embraced the situation until we could get them full-time teleworking.”
Stokes said the team also remained extremely responsive to its customers during the transition, keeping up with the incoming flow of vouchers and continuing to pay customers within five to seven days. The team processes approximately 270,000 vouchers annually.
“When we processed our first voucher from home, it was very cool and a huge victory for us because we were told for many years that we were unable to telework,” said Greg Hansel, travel review chief. “Now that the number of vouchers are gradually increasing, we’re going to get a good look at how successful and responsive we can be with telework.”
Not only did the team successfully complete the transition, it tackled other challenges with a response-focused mindset during the pandemic by building partnerships with installations.
A DOD-directed stop movement order halted or limited permanent change of station moves and reduced the number of incoming vouchers for the team to process. With a temporarily reduced workload, team members reached out to installation financial services offices to help them reconcile a number of vouchers that had been rejected and needed more information or documentation.
“We have mutual respect and admiration for our finance partners at the base,” said Hansel, who participates in organizational roadshows designed to build working relationships with FSOs across the Air Force. “We see the pressures and additional workloads on our FSO teams, and the more we interact and understand each other, the better we work together to take care of our customers.”
Working with the FSOs, the Ellsworth team helped reduce the number of rejected vouchers by 60 percent in less than six months.
“They are always willing to look into what can be done to take care of Airmen and get them paid,” Alcala said.
A good example of that is the team’s hurricane response. After Hurricane Dorian in October 2019, for the first time, the team sent pay technicians to bases that executed evacuation orders.
“We placed boots on the ground to assist the local finance offices in taking evacuation claims,” Stokes said. “Our expert eyes on the claims helped reduce the number of rejected vouchers and got customers paid more quickly.”
A year earlier, the team invited two Tyndall Air Force Base finance Airmen to Ellsworth while they were in evacuation status after Hurricane Michael.
“They worked with us for two days, and we reaped major benefits on the back end from working together,” Hansel said.
Alcala expressed pride in the Ellsworth team’s resiliency to the challenges posed by the pandemic.
“They never shut down, never lost a beat,” Alcala said. “Now they can accomplish work from home in a safe and healthy way, and it sets them up for continuing the mission during inclement weather. Their adaptability and flexibility increased their ability to take care of Airmen. That’s a key concept to being responsive.”