Florida's State Workers Worry As Telecommuting Lags - WUSF Public Media | Tampa NPR, Local News Coverage

Florida’s State Workers Worry As Telecommuting Lags

Gov. Ron DeSantis has ordered bars, restaurants and gyms to shut down and encouraged state agencies to allow employees to telecommute, in an effort to curb the coronavirus known as COVID-19. iStock

As Florida adjusts to an unprecedented public health emergency, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration has lagged in implementing work-from-home policies for state workers.

DeSantis has ordered bars, restaurants and gyms to shut down and encouraged state agencies to allow employees to telecommute, in an effort to curb the coronavirus known as COVID-19.

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But, despite health officials’ warnings against gatherings of 10 or more people, some state workers are still being asked to report to crowded offices.

“There are way more than 10 employees here in this enclosed space. There are more employees in my office with the same concerns, please advise,” Lizbeth Cabanas, a driver’s license examiner with the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, wrote to a union representative in a March 19 email obtained by The News Service of Florida.

Cabanas was also confused about having to work at an office that is located within a mall that has temporarily shuttered its doors to the public in Miami-Dade County, a hot spot for coronavirus cases.

The option to work remotely is “certainly not uniform across state agencies” as of late last week, according to Jacqui Carmona, Florida  political director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME, the union that represents state workers.

“We are fully supportive of the governor’s directive to move the large majority of the state’s workforce to telecommuting, but there is significant concern among our members that we are only now seeing state agencies implement the changes,” Carmona said on Thursday.

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Some state agencies still had a majority of employees working on-site as of Thursday, Carmona added, while recognizing that some state workers, such as correctional officers, are unable to work remotely.

“The only way to protect the health and safety of our workforce and all Floridians is limiting human interaction as much as possible,” she said.

On March 15, Rose Hebert, a spokeswoman for the Department of Management Services, the state’s administrative arm, said that DMS is not tracking which agencies have implemented telework arrangements.

Six days later, Hebert said that “agencies are rapidly adjusting to a quickly evolving environment.”

State agencies began last week to assess “their readiness for emergency telework” and began implementing work-from-home policies that “maintain operations for their customers while providing the greatest flexibility to their workforce,” Hebert told the News Service on Saturday.

The latest directive by the DeSantis’ administration ordered all facilities operated by state agencies to close to the public until April 19, in an effort to keep agency workers from having face-to-face interactions with the public. But all buildings “will remain operational for employees at this time,” the directive emphasized.

The DeSantis administration is allowing workers to use accrued paid time off if an employee needs to self-isolate after potential exposure to the virus, or needs to take care of an elderly family member or a child who is at home because his or her school has shut down.

Hebert said employees could use their accrued annual leave, personal holidays, sick leave or compensatory leave for coronavirus-related incidents. If an employee runs out of paid time off for the year, the governor is allowing other workers to “donate” their accrued time off to those who need it, she added.

“Each agency is currently in various stages of this process, depending on their mission critical functions. DMS will continue to help implement the governor’s recommendation and will be able to provide more information as it becomes available,” Hebert said in an email Saturday.

Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, for example, told his employees last week that the option to work from home would be done in phases.

“Phase 1 is something that we, as an agency, want to introduce in a matter that is focused on supporting and protecting our team members who may be at an elevated risk due to health concerns, if exposed to the COVID-19,” Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran wrote to employees in an email obtained by the News Service.

When asked about the directive, Taryn Fenske, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said on Friday “the department has prioritized our most medically vulnerable, and is working diligently to ensure they have the ability to telework.”

She said 58 percent of the department’s 2,201 workers were working remotely as of Friday.

Ketha Otis, a vocational rehabilitation technician, is one of those workers.

She started working from home on Thursday. She said she was glad to be working remotely after a “close call” six days earlier, when a coworker had a fever and was coughing.

“I was so upset because I had to be around my mom and her immune system is compromised and I don’t want to be the person to bring it to her. I am already trying to keep everyone else away from her,” Otis, treasurer of AFSCME Florida, said in a phone interview Thursday.

Otis, who said she has fielded questions from other state workers who are confused about whether to report to the office, called for more “cohesiveness” from state agencies on their work-from-home policies.

Otis added that 5 of 10 employees who work in her office in Miami-Dade County do not have laptops, an agency-wide dilemma the state needs to address to facilitate telework.

“I don’t know how they are going to do that,” Otis said.

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