How Georgians access state-government services could look different going forward after many state agencies shifted to working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Life is returning to normal for thousands of state government employees whose work was complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Or mostly normal.
It’s back to the office or into the field for state workers tasked with furnishing key services that broadly affect Georgians like Medicaid coverage, foods stamps, roadwork, policing, schools and mental health. Daycare inspectors, crime-lab technicians, prison administrators and rental-assistance specialists have either recently returned or will soon resume in-person work after more than a year of doing their jobs remotely, according to several state agency representatives.
Not everyone will be heading back to the office as COVID-19 vaccines roll out across Georgia.
Many state employees are set to keep teleworking into the future, continuing remote-work practices under consideration before the pandemic that proved helpful once the virus hit Georgia by nixing the need to brave rush-hour traffic or maintain office space.
“The 40-hour work week has been somewhat disassembled,” said Tom Krause, spokesman for the Georgia Public Service Commission. “But I don’t think that we’ve worked any less. Just in different ways.”
For some agencies, the pandemic has highlighted several challenges of working remotely such as at the state Department of Labor, where many unemployed Georgians have long complained about struggles with reaching staff on the phone to help process unemployment claims or disputes.
Protesters gathered outside a closed Georgia Department of Labor career center in Atlanta on May 19, 2021. (Credit: Beau Evans for State Affairs)
The continued closure of the Labor agencies so-called career centers, which aim to help unemployed Georgians build skills to secure new jobs, has sparked protests outside shuttered offices in Atlanta and the agency’s outposts elsewhere.
“If you want people to be able to go to work and look for work, open these doors!” said state Rep. Kim Schofield, D-Atlanta, as she gathered with protesters outside the Labor agency’s career center in downtown Atlanta in mid-May.
Amid public backlash, state Labor officials insist their staff has doubled up efforts to process hundreds of thousands of unemployment claims spurred by the pandemic. The agency recently announced Georgia ranks high among the 10-most populous states in processing pandemic-era claims, despite a lawsuit filed in June over delays in doling out unemployment benefits. Lately, many teleworking Labor employees have started splitting time between the office and working from home, said agency spokeswoman Kersha Cartwright.
“We have monitored the telework schedule and have noticed an increase in productivity with the flexible work schedule,” Cartwright said. “This of course will change when the offices are reopened to the public.”
Whether many state employees’ working from home has proved successful across the board remains an open question. Agency performance evaluations for 2021 will not be released until January.
Overall, state officials do not have a total tally of how many staff across all agencies are still teleworking. The state Department of Transportation, which manages road construction and maintenance programs, has nearly 1,300 more employees working remotely now than before the pandemic. Roughly a third of staff at the state Department of Natural Resources, overseeing wildlife and environmental protection, are still teleworking.
Some agencies do not keep a full accounting of how many employees work remotely. The state Departments of Human Services and Agriculture, with a combined roughly 4,450 employees, could not provide estimates on the number of their teleworking staff.
Many Georgia government employees work in the James H. "Sloppy" Floyd Building office towers across from the State Capitol in Atlanta. (Credit: Beau Evans for State Affairs)
Despite challenges, many state government heads say they’re pleased with the work staff have done from home or by only coming into the office a few days a week.
They feel confident about keeping some aspects of remote work into the future, even with the benefits of face-to-face interactions between employees, managers and Georgians seeking services. When the pandemic interrupted in-person inspections at Georgia daycares, staff at the state Department of Early Care and Learning used webcams and video conferences to review facility conditions, said Commissioner Amy Jacobs. Normal daycare inspections are set to resume on Aug. 2, officials said.
“I do think there is a benefit and a value to being face-to-face with your colleagues and your clients,” Jacobs said in a recent interview. “But I think we’ve struck a balance.”
In-person inspections have also resumed at local facilities that cater to Georgians with intellectual and developmental disabilities who have received the COVID-19 vaccine, said Ashley Fielding, an assistant commissioner with the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD). The agency, which oversees mental-health services in Georgia, saw around 80% of its roughly 3,900 continuing to work in-person in psychiatric hospitals throughout the pandemic, said Fielding. The remaining 20% of its administrative staff are now mostly working remotely or coming into the office a few days a week.
“Importantly, like many other organizations within and outside state government, we believe continued remote working has been and will continue to be a critical employee recruitment and retention tool in what is an increasingly competitive and challenging labor market,” Fielding said.
Amy Jacobs (pictured) leads the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning. (Credit: Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning)
For many state employees, little changed in the day-to-day of how they work beyond the masks on their faces, the sanitizer on their hands and the plexiglass between desks.
State psychiatric hospital workers couldn’t resort to home offices, for instance. Other agencies saw some practices put in place for safety reasons during the pandemic that could become routine going forward. That could include allowing teenage drivers to have a parent or other adult accompany them on tests for their driver’s licenses, which was done for months during the pandemic, said Susan Sports, spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Driver Services.
Many agencies leaned into online platforms for high-demand services such as renewing driver’s licenses or providing traffic-accident reports from officers at the Georgia State Patrol, where only about 10% to 15% of staff could even qualify for teleworking, according to spokesman Lt. Mark Riley.
“For the most part, we were able to get our jobs done and we were still efficient,” Riley said in a recent interview. “But it was a culture shock.”
Georgia’s state government is not alone in seeing more employees work from home due to the pandemic.
Governments and businesses across the U.S. have moved to more regular teleworking or a mix of in-person and remote work, said Teresa Gerton, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based National Academy of Public Administration.
Going forward, government officials in Georgia and elsewhere should focus on transitioning services remotely only if doing so benefits the public overall, not just an agency’s budget, Gerton said.
“It’s a huge opportunity to redesign government work,” she said. “But that redesign has to be done from the customer’s perspective, not the government’s perspective.”
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