Here's to the few, the proud, the essential workers.

Just about one-third (34 percent) of adults in the U.S. have been dubbed essential workers and have found themselves thrust into the surreal situation of reporting to work during a global pandemic that hasn't been part of our collective understanding in most of our lifetimes according to the Kaiser Family Foundation Health Tracking Poll in April.

These ordinary folks suddenly were faced with the extraordinary responsibility to meet critical needs for the nation's food, shelter, transportation, health and safety. Often referred to as superheroes, it's a misnomer that this moniker conveys intent or invincibility. They neither sought nor signed up for this role and, although they might be fortunate to be collecting a paycheck, the negative consequence of their heroism leaves them more vulnerable to the risk of exposure to COVID-19.

From health care to human services, construction to communications, law enforcement to logistics, financial services to farming, grocery stores to garages, there are legions of American workers up-close and personal with the pandemic, out there fulfilling the duties of essential workers.

They deserve our thanks and utmost respect for the key roles that they are playing as we navigate the precarious and cautious path to our new normal in work and life.

Q: Can you give us a quick overview of Hillcrest Educational Centers?

A: We are a nonprofit, human service organization and one of the Berkshire's largest employers who will celebrate our 35th year of operation in June. We have over 550 staff dedicated to providing quality care, treatment and educational services to youth with intensive special needs in one day school setting and three residential programs in Pittsfield, Lenox and Great Barrington.

Q: How has business changed for Hillcrest since the pandemic?

A: Four months ago, it would have been inconceivable to have guessed where we would be now. Staff and students donned in masks; daily screenings to determine exposure, symptoms, and temperature; and PSA posters around each program reminding staff about hand-washing, not touching their faces and practicing social distancing. New processes for cleaning and sanitizing, new procedures clearing staff to return to work, new practices limiting occupancy of rooms, and new policies for remote work have become part of the fabric of our operation. Physical meetings seem passe at this point as we Zoom, Google Meet, and FaceTime to connect with each other and keep the wheels in motion. We stalk the Center for Disease Control and state Department of Public Health websites daily for the most recent guidance, register for webinars hosted by member organizations, and pore through just-passed regulations and acts. New terminology has tumbled into our vernacular, and new communications from state licensing agencies steer our direction. What is not new is the unwavering commitment of our staff in supporting the students in our programs. They continue to persevere and give their very best each and every day while shouldering the burden of being an essential worker and trying to balance what might be going on at home, such as juggling day care, having a partner out of work or trying to be the fill-in teacher for their children because of school closures. We are grateful for their service and humbled by their dedication.

Q: Who do you consider your community superheroes?

A: We reached out with a few social media postings about needing impossible-to-find masks, and the flood gates opened up. It's so encouraging to see individuals and businesses understand our struggles and respond with overwhelming kindness. The list is long and we certainly don't want to miss anyone. Today's list is out of date by tomorrow because of the steady stream of support we continue to receive. We would like to express our heartfelt gratitude to the individuals, businesses and organizations for their generosity with donations of hand sanitizer, masks and other types of protective equipment, as well as those who donated their time sewing reusable cloth masks.

Q: Are you currently hiring?

A: We are essential and hiring. Direct care staff is the focus of our current recruitment campaign, specifically our youth development professional position. Last month, we increased our direct care salaries by $1 an hour and made this retroactive to the beginning of the pandemic. This is not a temporary measure in place solely during the pandemic. This is a permanent change in the rate of pay and now brings our new starting salary to $15.64 to $17.39 an hour, depending on shift. Direct care staff are also automatically eligible for a $.50 an hour pay increase at six months and then again at 12 months. If a full-time job is not what you are looking for, we can also offer on-call positions and even bring someone on in a temporary capacity if they have been recently furloughed and are awaiting a re-opening notification.

Q: What type of career opportunities exist for a direct care staff?

A: Promoting from within is not just a catch phrase here. More than half of our senior and executive management members began their career with us as a direct care staffer. Even our chief financial officer did a stint as a child care worker way back when, and two of our clinicians have risen through the ranks to run programs. If leadership isn't your lofty goal, we have paths for our staff to become a teacher or clinician and support those efforts with our tuition-assistance programs. If someone wants to stay put and not move into another role, we have positional career ladders that have steps to move up within your current role in which you learn, become more engaged and get compensation increases.

Q: How do your benefits compare?

A: A total compensation package for our staff includes a student loan pay-down program, where we make payments to your loan principal to reduce the heavy burden of your college debt. We have a paid birth recovery/care and bonding leave to help staff financially when they are out after the birth or adoption of a child. We have free Teledoc services through Health New England with no co-pay required, so you and your covered family members can get unlimited medical and mental health services without ever having to leave your home. Participate in our Wellness Program and save between $500 and $1,000 off your annual health insurance costs depending on plan selection. Our 403(b) retirement plan includes free financial consultation and access to financial wellness workshops. As an essential employer, our working parents can access emergency child care and have the cost subsidized by the state.

Q: If someone wants to learn more about your organization, where should they look?

A: Besides our website at www.hillcrestec.org, our online presence can be seen on Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook. To learn more about the amazing team of professionals that you will work with if you join us, check out our blog at hillcresteducationalfoundation.wordpress.com and read about our staff experience in their own words.

Q: If someone is interested in the direct care position, how do they go about applying?

A: Give our recruiter, Gayle Murphy, a call at 413-499-7924, ext. 113, to learn more about us and discover how Hillcrest Educational Centers might just be the place for you to show off your super powers. These days, with social distancing being a concern, our interviews are being done by phone, Zoom, FaceTime, Google Meet or other online video platforms. Evening and weekend interviews are available upon request. Apply on our website at www.hillcrestec.org or on Indeed.