‘There’s Never Been Anything Like This:’ Managing the State Employee Workforce

A New York State Department of Health worker instructs drivers to approach a kiosk at a COVID-19 drive-thru testing site at Jones Beach State Park on Long Island on March 18, 2020, in Wantagh, N.Y.

A New York State Department of Health worker instructs drivers to approach a kiosk at a COVID-19 drive-thru testing site at Jones Beach State Park on Long Island on March 18, 2020, in Wantagh, N.Y. AP Photo

An interview about the challenges faced by human resource directors as they figure out leave policies, hazardous duty pay and countless other workforce issues during the coronavirus crisis.

For the past four weeks, the leaders of state human resource departments have gathered on Monday phone calls to talk about the issues they face in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. Leslie Scott, the executive director of the National Association of State Personnel Executives, hosts these calls, reporting that on April 13 personnel officials from about 40 states got on the line.

We’ve known Scott for twenty years, ever since she became executive director of this state membership association. She can recall no other time when state leaders needed weekly joint calls at this frequency. “We’ve had issue calls and on 9/11 we got all the HR directors on the phone to talk about whether they should send employees home. But there’s never been anything like this,” she told us.

We sat down with Leslie (virtually speaking, of course) to learn what the states’ HR leaders have been discussing, what their biggest challenges have been and what changes are likely when normal government life returns.

Q. How have the nature of the calls changed during this month?

In our first call, the main topic was sending employees home to work—all about stretching the limits of telework and what to do with employees who could not work from home. In the beginning, HR directors had to make decisions quickly and the fiscal impact received less attention. Now, the fiscal impact has become more of a concern.

Q. Do you see signs as to whether there will be furloughs or layoffs, a phenomenon that we’ve started to see at the local level?

We talked about furloughs last week and this week. Pennsylvania furloughed some employees, who are still receiving benefits, and some other states have had requests from their agencies to furlough some employees. But as of this week [the week of April 13], none of the agency requests had been approved. There seem to be some federal red flags that are concerning to people about implementing furloughs.

The reaction I’m getting is that states will muddle through fiscal year 2020 [which ends in June for most states] but come next year there may be a different story. We’ll see what happens with the state budgets and if furloughs and layoffs are going to occur.

Q. With revenues dropping and budgets undergoing cuts, are states thinking about rewarding the employees who are on the front lines and putting themselves at risk?

The issue of hazardous pay has continued to come up in the last few weeks. Most states have not implemented hazardous duty pay or another type of reward or incentive pay. But there are a few that are offering pay increases for employees who risk being exposed. [One state, Michigan, for example, offers up to a $750 premium per 80-hour pay period for critical infrastructure workers, health care providers and emergency responders; in another, Massachusetts, the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees reached a deal with the state to institute hazardous duty increases of $5 to $10 an hour for health care workers.]

This isn’t always totally a state decision. Some agencies have their own discretion if they can assume some of the cost in their budget. And some states have mechanisms in place within their compensation system to add extra pay if warranted.

Q. Are there other issues that are now emerging a month after government has been significantly transformed?

In our call this week, we had a significant conversation about personal protective equipment and about forcing all employees to wear masks. That has become more of a challenge especially when some states may be having trouble purchasing enough masks.

There was more talk in the last two weeks about the impact on employees. A lot of employees who are working through this are going to be physically and emotionally tired and may just need some time after all of this is over. We haven’t talked about burnout, but I imagine that some burnout is anticipated.

States have employee assistance programs that offer various kinds of counseling and the usage is generally up. These programs have been beefed up to make sure there are enough resources from third party providers. States are logging the types of calls coming in and there is an increase in domestic violence calls and calls about financial issues. There is more general stress and job-related concerns.

Q. How are the HR directors themselves doing?

I think they’re worn out. There’s no question there. They have been working non-stop on this. I don’t think they’ve had time to take it all in. They’ve been so busy. For the past month, they’ve been working exceedingly long hours and all weekends. I’m certain none of them has had a day off in the last month.

Q. What’s been the biggest challenge so far?

It’s all challenging, but honestly, I think that the vast majority of our members’ time is focused on interpreting and implementing leave policy issues.

They have to figure out how new federal policies (The Families First Coronavirus Response Act and the Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act) fit in with their current leave policies. The question of how much leave to provide and how to provide it is a huge issue and there’s some confusion about how much the federal government will reimburse.

In last week’s call, our members mentioned that initial planning just assumed the situation would last through April. Looking past this month, there’s a lot to reassess, including the impact of revenue shortfalls and the way federal programs will affect decision making on leaves and furloughs.

It is also important for states to track the leave they’re giving, but many of them have relatively antiquated computer systems and they have to go in and calculate this manually. States are already talking about how when this is over, they will have an opportunity to tweak their processes.

Q. Do you have much sense of political differences in the states from the point of view of the HR directors?

I think for the most part politics hasn’t come into play at all. They’re all experiencing very similar issues and want to take care of their workforce. Even though the penetration of the virus has been more intense in some states than others, this is an issue for all of them. Montana has been just as involved in the calls as Washington. No matter how much this is affecting the state population, it is affecting the state workforce, whether it’s made up of thousands or tens of thousands of employees.

Q. When this is over, will the experiences of the pandemic change the way government is managed?

The HR directors are already talking about what will happen when this is over. They’re taking notes on the opportunities to tweak some processes. There are lots of things that they’ll take a look at later on—obviously telework and what happens when employees who are effectively teleworking will be asked to come back to the office. It will be interesting to see that evolution. Paid parental leave was already a big issue before the coronavirus. I think leave issues in general are going to get attention

But everyone is still so consumed with what is happening now and that will be down the road.

OTHER STORIES on Route Fifty:

Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene of Barrett and Greene, Inc. are columnists and senior advisers to Route Fifty.

NEXT STORY: Health Officials Recommended Canceling Events with 10-50 People. Then 33,000 Fans Attended a Major League Soccer Game.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.