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The Impact of Coronavirus on State and Local Employees

Today's post comes to us from Workforce Institute board member Neil Reichenberg.

As coronavirus cases continue to increase in multiple states across the United States, a new survey conducted by the Center for State and Local Government Excellence finds that public sector employees are deeply worried about their personal safety, family finances, job loss, furloughs, and pay and benefit reductions. Despite these concerns, the research also shows that public sector employees value serving their communities during this difficult time.

Almost all the 1,008 state and local government employee respondents to the survey said that the coronavirus has impacted the nature of their jobs, with 63% expressing difficulty in adjusting to these changes. State and local government employees remain committed to their jobs, with 61% indicating that they value serving their community while almost half believe the public has a greater appreciation of the important work they are performing. Two-thirds of survey respondents have trust in their leaders to make the right decisions regarding employee safety.

The pandemic has resulted in a sharp increase in work being conducted remotely from 18% prior to the pandemic to 71% currently - 42% of whom are working fully remotely. Over half of those working remotely for the first time indicated that it has been difficult to adjust to remote work.

A large majority (70%) stated that due to their jobs, they believe they are somewhat at risk of exposure to people who may have the virus.  The survey found the following concerns about their jobs:

  • Keeping their family safe from contracting the virus - 83% of respondents.
  • Staying protected from contracting the virus at work or once they return to the workplace - 70% of respondents.
  • Having pay reduced - 52% of respondents.
  • Having employee benefits reduced - 50% of respondents.
  • Having hours severely reduced or being furloughed - 49% of respondents.

Among the expected changes in work and the workplace that the survey respondents anticipate are: maintaining social distancing, an increase of health precautions (wearing masks/gloves), some employees continuing to work remotely, health checks such as temperature before going to work, redesigning of the workplace, increasing use of teleconferencing and technology, and less travel.

Nearly half of the respondents stated that working in the public sector during the pandemic is a source of pride and close to 40% indicated that the pandemic makes their work feel more meaningful. One-third of the respondents believe that the risks they are taking during the pandemic are not on par with their compensation and 20% say they are considering changing jobs. When asked about the emotions they are feeling while at work, negative emotions such as being “stressed”, “anxious”, “burnt-out/fatigued”, “lonely”, “depressed”, “sad”, and “pessimistic” were 6 of the top 7 responses with “grateful” being the only positive emotion expressed among the top responses.

Given all of these concerns and challenges, I believe it is critical that the federal government provide funding to state and local governments to avoid additional public sector job losses and provide needed equipment. Government leaders need to recognize the impact the pandemic is having on their workforces, especially those in front-facing positions dealing with the public. This is a time for both compassion and flexibility. Managers need the training and tools to ensure that they can manage a remote workforce effectively. Support needs to be provided to employees who are feeling stressed and anxious. As employees return to work, governments need to take steps to implement policies and procedures to reduce the risk of either employees or the public contracting COVID 19.

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