Top Tribal HR Challenges in 2020:Takeaways from the NNAHRA Annual Conference

and   |   October 30, 2020

Though the annual National Native American Human Resources Association (NNAHRA) Conference went virtual in 2020, it still managed to deliver three days of timely and informative trainings, providing HR professionals across Indian Country with real-world solutions to the myriad challenges Tribes are facing today.

As REDW has long been a strong supporter and partner of NNAHRA, several members of our Human Resources Consulting (HRC) team participated in this virtual forum in late September—including Senior Manager Alicia Finley, who shared her own expertise in a session on “Seven Things Every HR Director Should Know in 2020.” And now we’d like to share some of the key points we came away with, ourselves.

Here’s what struck us as being particularly important to Indian Country as Tribal governments and enterprises continue to navigate COVID-19, and our quick take on developing solutions.

Takeaways from the 2020 NNAHRA Virtual Conference

While Tribes and Tribal entities face unique challenges, their HR professionals experience the same headaches other HR personnel do: a lack of qualified applicants; employee retention; a workforce hesitant to return to the office for fear of COVID-19; finding effective solutions to internal conflict; and sexual harassment claims—to name a few.

1.    Maintaining Tribal Sovereignty

The global health crisis has had a uniquely harsh impact on the developing economies of Native American Tribes, which—according to an April memo sent by the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin—had been growing steadily stronger over the past 30+ years under federal policies of Tribal Self-Determination.

The imposition of some Federal laws and regulations can have the effect of superseding Tribal sovereignty. Take, for example the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which, if adopted, would require compliance with Federal Law, and thus limit Tribal Sovereignty and the ability for Tribes to implement their own Family Medical Leave (FML) policy.

Tribes naturally prefer to create their own ordinances and polices, which are—at the very least—equal to Federal law to avoid the possibility of having Federal agencies interfere with Tribal activities. The best defense against potential lawsuits is for Tribes to ensure that they institute and follow their own policies.

Tribes should first look at their leave policies to determine if the employee can take sick or vacation time, and then look to their FML policy. Under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), employees may be entitled to leave they would not otherwise have been able to take. However, Tribes are not required to provide leave under the FFCRA.

2.    Retaining Tribal Talent

Tribes are hard pressed to keep talent within their community. Many NNAHRA Conference attendees expressed concern about Tribal members who leave the reservation in pursuit of higher education, but do not return because of limited career opportunities.

It is important for Tribes to identify why their members are not returning to work for and benefit the Tribal community. Sometimes this is linked to limited opportunities in areas of leadership for Tribal members, but can also be a result of low pay, minimal employment benefits, limited housing, and contractors, rather than Tribal Members, filling the positions.

To help assess possible factors contributing to these occurrences, Tribes and their enterprises would be wise to first look into conducting a comprehensive compensation study, which would ensure that their pay is both internally competitive and market-competitive; this is a quick and easy solution that can have an immediately positive impact.

3.    Solutions for Limited Applicant Pools

The Tribal construction and trades industry is booming, but many Tribes are experiencing a shortage of qualified workers in the industry to assist with infrastructure. Young people are more drawn to technology careers, and so are not willing to enter these specific industries.

Because of the limited pool of qualified applicants, and low enrollment in programs to learn industry skills, construction and trades positions are now considered “hot jobs” in the market. Therefore, it is important to look at the compensation being paid for these positions to ensure they are market-competitive and that Tribal employers are able to recruit and retain employees with the needed skills.

REDW’s Human Resources Consulting services team offers a dynamic solution to identifying market rates for these positions (and all positions within Tribal organizations) and takes into account Tribal position benchmarks.

4.    Identifying Resources to Assist Your COVID-19 Response

COVID-19 has hit Tribal communities particularly hard, owing to the remote locations and limited healthcare resources of some Tribes, and particularly Tribal elders. With the remote locations of many Tribes, limited access to healthcare, personal protective equipment (PPE), and in some cases, food and clean water, a difficult situation has become even more challenging.

In April, the U.S. Treasury announced $8 billion in CARES Act funding specifically reserved for Tribes, which could be used for hazard pay, leave policies and remote work. But other human resources challenges have since arisen for Tribes regarding:

  • workplace confidentiality, such as positive COVID-19 cases
  • contact tracing and physical distance technologies
  • health and safety issues, such as quarantine and leave policies
  • cyber attacks
  • reliable internet access for remote workers

Meanwhile, many Tribal members also continue to wonder if Tribal Coronavirus Relief Funds (CRF) in the HEROES Act will be extended past December 30, 2020. At present, there has been no extension. However, if the latest version (“HEROES 2.0”) is passed, it will include $9.5 billion in fiscal relief for Tribal governments—providing some reprieve—and would extend the timeframe to use CRF funds to December 31, 2021.

How REDW Can Help

With a solid knowledge of human resources best practices, non-Native professionals can still make a meaningful contribution to helping support Tribes and Tribal entities. As leading compensation study experts for Tribes, REDW’s human resources consultants also offer ongoing human resources support. If you have questions regarding how to navigate COVID-19 relief funding or any of the unique HR challenges that Tribes are currently facing, please contact Lydia Craig or Alicia Finley.


REDW is committed to keeping you informed at all times, and especially through the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Stay connected with us on LinkedIn and @REDWLLC on Twitter. Access some of our other updates on our COVID-19 Resource Hub.

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