Certified AOC gardeners keep themselves safe by using proper pesticide application techniques; other workers and visitors to the Capitol campus stay safe thanks to the gardeners' sound applications; and, ultimately, the environment is safeguarded by AOC pesticide applications that increasingly emphasize integrated pest management (IPM). IPM is a holistic approach that promotes the most environmentally friendly solutions to pest issues whenever possible.

"Many of our AOC gardeners are required to maintain their pesticide applicator certification from the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment,” said Jim Kaufmann, Director of AOC's Capitol Grounds and Arboretum. In a normal year, the approach to certification and recertification was, respectively, to study for and take the certification exam on site at the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE), and maintain recertification annually by attending full-day continuous education trainings at various locations in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.

However, 2020 was no normal year.

After the COVID-19 outbreak in March, the DOEE suspended on-site administration of the certification exam; the regional recertification trainings were also canceled. Meanwhile, AOC workforce schedules throughout the agency were radically altered — including rotating smaller shifts of on-site employees and sending many home to telework for the foreseeable future.

"We transitioned our gardening staff to on-site crews at 50 percent capacity doing a week-on-week-off kind of rotation," said Kaufmann. "It was stressful but it allowed us to accomplish our mission critical work and much more despite the challenges."

To be sure, AOC gardeners still had landscapes to maintain during the pandemic as well as recertifications to complete. Recertifications during the pandemic required a new approach. A former Capitol Grounds and Arboretum Plant Health Specialist working with the DOEE and the AOC's Human Capital Management Division, Training and Employee Development (TED) Branch developed a streamlined online training that served as both a pesticide recertification training and as preparation for the certification exam.

The training, which begins with the 55-minute introductory course, includes several additional courses and is offered on AOC Learn, the agency's learning management system. The course was approved by the DOEE and launched in October 2020.

Over two dozen AOC gardeners have taken the training from Capitol Grounds and Arboretum, Library Buildings and Grounds, Supreme Court Building and Grounds, and the U.S. Botanic Garden. Furthermore, for the first time, DOEE representatives came to the Capitol campus to administer and proxy the certification exam for new AOC gardeners. The exam took place in a large room in the Hart Senate Office Building where everyone could safely social distance.

"The course was well received and definitely helped our newer staff members prepare for the certification exam," said Katie Serock, a Gardener Supervisor for Capitol Grounds and Arboretum who took the training for her recertification. "Achieving and maintaining the pesticide applicator credential is also required in order to advance in our field, so it's an important step in our employees' development to provide them more technical horticultural knowledge."

TED not only worked to get the new pesticide applicator training online in a few short weeks, the branch has also been working nonstop since the early days of the pandemic to convert as many of the AOC's in-person employee development programs as possible to virtual learning.

"COVID-19 presented an opportunity that I didn't know was a need for training until the pesticide courses," said Betzabel (Bessy) Plaza, a Human Resource Specialist in TED. "Employees were suddenly teleworking and some were issued an agency iPad or iPhone for the first time, so I started converting all of our courses to being mobile friendly and the pesticide ones were among the first to offer that feature."

The success of the AOC's new pesticide applicator recertification program bodes well for employee training opportunities that offer more platforms and flexibility to support a changing workforce. "It's a great use of the agency's technology," said Kaufmann, "and it also reflects the strong commitment to enhanced employee development that Architect of the Capitol Brett Blanton envisions for the AOC in the years to come."

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