How the pandemic has impacted state and local government employees

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The pandemic has altered life for employees of state and local governments, no less than it has for their federal counterparts. Recent research by the Center for State and Local Government Excellence points up several trends for the year ahead. For the highlights, Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke to the Center’s senior research associate, Gerald Young.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Young, good to have you back.

Gerald Young: Hi, good to be with you.

Tom Temin: So what has the pandemic done at wrot, let’s say, on the workforce at the state and local level generally?

Gerald Young: Oh, well, obviously it’s had impacts in terms of revenues and services. There have been quite a number of jurisdictions that have been cutting back on what they’ve been able to offer, in addition to trimming staff either on a permanent or temporary basis, whether that’s via furloughs, reduced hours, or obviously the changes that have been made in the structure of those services, whether they’re in person virtual or some hybrid. And we really don’t have a final picture on what all of those changes are going to be because so many of those organizations budget on an annual basis, and maybe they’re just approaching now the point where they’re going to have to be making some new decisions for the coming year.

Tom Temin: Yeah. And so the question is, nobody knows when people are going to be coming back or in what measure or in what numbers. So what are some of the trends you see coming into 21 as we get this year underway?

Gerald Young: Well, the Center for State and Local Government Excellence at ICMA-RC is really focused on retirement, health and wellness and workforce needs that state and local governments are addressing to attract and retain the staff that they need for their organizations, and that they are competing to attract compared to the private sector. And it’s really a challenge, not just in economizing at a time like this, but also in making sure that you don’t end up providing roadblocks to attracting or retaining those employees going forward. Part of what they are looking at right now is kind of a holistic view of employee well being. Obviously, there have been mental health issues that need to be addressed in terms of maintaining the morale of the workforce as they’ve been going through some significant changes over the past year. But it also comes down to things like financial wellness. It’s great to know that your employees perhaps have an EAP that they can rely on, but also that they have financial wellness education programs, for instance, that can help them make the most of the resources that they have available to them, they can make informed decisions in terms of how they are allocating their benefit or their retirement dollars, and budgeting accordingly to withstand not only this pandemic, but other emergencies that may befall them. And unfortunately, there’s a high percentage of state and local government workers that have not necessarily put aside those rainy day funds that will enable them to do that.

Tom Temin: Yeah, so it sounds like the opportunity for financial setback is probably higher for state and local employees, perhaps than for federal, because nobody’s really lost their jobs for the most part. But the state and local governments are a little bit more brittle when it comes to the size of the workforce and falling revenues.

Gerald Young: Well, they certainly don’t have the same ability to deal with shocks to their revenue or their expenditure profiles, they have to balance their budgets every year. And they don’t have funds coming in from the federal government to assist them in dealing with that. And the attraction and retention is a real issue for them, and that they have quite a number of late career employees who are retiring. And they’ve got to be able not only to attract somebody to fill those positions going forward, but find a way that they can meet the, I guess, career ladder and employee development needs of those folks so that they do bring them on, they find that the work is not only rewarding, but it’s something that is perhaps allowing them opportunities to cross train in other areas, that’s even more important right now, as there are so many vacancies. One person could be wearing many hats, can determine areas that they may not have had as their primary work responsibility, but that are growing in importance and allowing them to grow as an individual and as an employee.

Tom Temin: And what should governments be doing, what should managers, what should elected officials be doing to ensure a resilient and workforce that’s all there, as presumably we’ll be coming out of this pandemic, sometime, maybe mid year, late year?

Gerald Young: Well, I think a couple of strategies that they can be looking at right now or one to look at the overall shape of their workforce and consider the opportunities that this pandemic is providing. We have seen significant change over to off site or hybrid working arrangements where folks are telecommuting, and the technology has really assisted in that. But it’s also providing the, I think, moment in time when it’s possible for state and local government agencies to consider that it’s not necessarily a local employee who is necessary to fill each one of these positions. It may be that they can collaborate with their neighboring organizations or with organizations farther away. It may be that if they’ve been challenged in the past on priorities, like diversifying their workforce, that they can recruit diverse employees from all around the country.

Tom Temin: Yeah, that was one of my questions is that this trend toward trying to find more diverse and inclusive workforces — has that been interrupted or slowed down in some way by the pandemic?

Gerald Young: I think it is facilitated by the pandemic in that it is possible to recruit somebody, even if they are not within easy commuting distance of your location. If you, for instance, happened to be in a small homogeneous community, you can be recruiting from major metropolitan areas, even hundreds of miles away. And you’re not requiring that that individual relocate to your community, certainly in the short term, and you have the ability to not only bring those people on, but to help them to network with peers, who again, might not necessarily already be a part of your organization.

Tom Temin: Yeah, that idea that this can enhance the ability to get people and retain them because they don’t have to commute or because they might be the talent you need but they’re not in town. That’s, I think, an overlooked benefit, if you will, for lack of a better word, of this whole forced remoteness.

Gerald Young: I think it is, and I think jurisdictions have been becoming more creative in terms of how they onboard those staff, and how they support those staffs. So that’s not simply a matter of having a an in person gathering once a month or anything like that, it might be that you have employee resource groups or peer networks with surrounding organizations that, for instance, if you have a small organization, we’ve had examples where there’s maybe one social worker in a particular county, and they’re feeling a little bit isolated by that, or maybe you have very few staff of particular demographic profile, you can network with those other agencies in your area or form virtual employee resource networks so that they can have that support and that feeling of welcoming to the organization.

Tom Temin: And finally, what do you feel, if any, of the effects on customer experience citizen service and all of that has been at the state and local level? And if it has suffered, can it be restored?

Gerald Young: I think certainly when the pandemic started, there was a whole lot of understanding of the circumstances that we are in. And obviously there is some impatience with people to get back to whatever normal might be going forward. But some of the survey work that SLGE and ICMA-RC has been involved with has been looking at how COVID is impacting the workplace and the employees. And many of them, 44%, were feeling that the public is more aware of the importance of what they are doing. And I think that is a real driver to job satisfaction. And it’s a factor in retention of those employees and the work that we have ahead of us in terms of not only bringing people back into the office, the percentage that we’re doing at least some remote work has come down to closer to about 50% right now, but getting services back to the type and style that might be our services long term.

Tom Temin: Well, let’s hope for the best. Gerald Young is senior research associate at the Center for State and Local Government Excellence. Thanks so much for joining me.

Gerald Young: Thank you very much.

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