Pandemic could have lasting impact on how state government works

The Georgia State Building at 2 Peachtree St. is home to state health agencies, but plenty of its office space has been empty while employees work from home during the coronavirus pandemic. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

The Georgia State Building at 2 Peachtree St. is home to state health agencies, but plenty of its office space has been empty while employees work from home during the coronavirus pandemic. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

The coronavirus pandemic may have changed the way state government operates for good, and that means tens of millions of dollars in savings at a time when lawmakers are desperately trying to patch holes in the budget.

Thousands of state staffers were sent home to do their jobs remotely, and agencies — like many businesses in the United States — found that they could get work done with less office space, fewer phones and equipment, little to no travel expenses, and meetings and training held virtually.

Now they are proposing more than $20 million in savings on rent, telecommunications, travel, training and meeting costs in the upcoming year’s budget to help balance the state’s books during the coronarirus recession. And that may only be the start, with other agencies looking to reduce their office footprint on and around Capitol Hill.

“I think we have all learned a lot during this crisis about what can and can’t be done,” Attorney General Chris Carr said, “about who needs to be in the office 9 to 5 , Monday through Friday, and who doesn’t necessarily have to be.”

Kyle Wingfield, president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation think tank, isn’t surprised.

“If you look at what is happening in corporate America, they are having all the same discussions,” he said. “Do we need so much office space, do we need the density? Travel? I have to imagine we are accomplishing a lot of this with a $14.99-a-month Zoom account.”

That transformation is happening at the same time the massive economic downturn — which has caused record unemployment — has state tax collections plummeting. That means the General Assembly will have to cut $2.6 billion in spending this month when it reconvenes the 2020 legislative session.

Long-lasting impact

That has forced the state bureaucracy, which had already been asked to innovate and trim spending, to dig deep to save jobs.

State government — like city and county government and school systems — is personnel-heavy, so most of the savings will come from laying off more than 1,000 staffers, eliminating or freezing even more positions, and furloughing tens of thousands of workers — making them take days off without pay.

However, when the economy comes back, furloughs will disappear and the state will almost certainly begin backfilling at least some of the jobs that were lost because the need for services in a growing state such as Georgia will demand it.

But changes in how the bureaucracy of more than 100,000 state and university employees work, and where and when they work, could have a long-lasting impact on everything from metro Atlanta traffic to office space needs.

"We had the coronavirus change how we look at the workplace," said Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge. "We've given more lip service to telework than real service. Now, will it take hold? If so, then you don't need all the office space we have now."

Thousands of jobs in state government can’t be done from home. The Georgia State Patrol can’t enforce traffic laws from home; corrections officers can’t guard adult and juvenile inmates from home; Department of Driver Services staffers can’t issue all titles, driver’s licenses or tags from home; and the Department of Transportation can’t maintain highways from home.

But since March educators have taught from home. Schools and college campuses are reinventing how they will do things this fall.

At least some state workers from most if not all agencies were sent home to do their jobs. The mammoth Sloppy Floyd complex across from the state Capitol, the Legislative Office Building, the State of Georgia Building (known to many as 2 Peachtree Street), all had plenty of empty desks.

Spending cuts pre-dated the pandemic. Gov. Brian Kemp urged agencies to use more technology and innovate to cut costs last year when he ordered the first round of budget cuts.

Some of the reductions that agencies proposed begged the question: Why didn’t they do this before?

Staffers tell stories of phone lines and other services the state was billed for that hadn’t been used in years. Most everyone uses cellphones in state government, but offices continued paying for desk phones when they were more of a backup than a necessity. Because agencies took up so much room in state buildings, some rented space in pricey buildings. Out-of-town conferences and meetings were sometimes bloated with state staffers.

Kemp's office had already approved eliminating more than 1,000 unfilled jobs and had slowed hiring dramatically since the fall.

Then in March, the pandemic sent home thousands of state staffers who would normally work in office buildings.

‘Looking at reducing’ footprint

In recent budget cut plans, more than a dozen agencies said they would reduce rental costs, some by moving into the Sloppy Floyd towers, some by closing regional offices, and others simply by giving up office space they no longer need because either they have fewer staffers or more of them are teleworking.

Other agencies, such as Carr’s Department of Law and the Department of Education, are developing plans to reduce the amount of office space they use to cut costs as well.

The Education Department has offices on six floors in the Sloppy Floyd complex — known as the Twin Towers.

Rusk Roam, the department’s chief financial officer, told Senate budget writers last month that the agency greatly expanded staff teleworking and virtual meetings, like other agencies and like private businesses. “It’s really opened our eyes that we can operate this way,” he said. “I don’t feel like we’ve really lacked anything by it.

“We’re really looking at what our footprint is at the Capitol and looking at reducing that.”

The Department of Juvenile Justice began eliminating landlines it decided it didn't need before the pandemic, and more than a dozen agencies included about $9 million in savings on telecommunications in their budget plans.

Juvenile Justice Commissioner Tyrone Oliver said his agency saved $206,000 by eliminating phone charges on more than 400 devices — such as tablets — that nobody was using. It saved $570,000 by eliminating landlines for staffers with state-issued cellphones, and $663,000 by closing 18 community offices — essentially probation sites — and consolidating services.

“Our employees are our greatest assets and we value them, and we want to make sure we can save what we can without affecting our employees with furloughs and layoffs,” Oliver said.

The commissioner, like other agency directors, said staffers have been able to get more done working from home.

“We’re human, we don’t like change,” he said. “The feeling was if you’re not in the office, you can’t get work done. This pandemic has proved otherwise.”

Feeling more productive, energetic

Jajuana Dewberry, a department attorney, said she’s mostly worked from home since March.

“I feel like I am more productive,” Dewberry said. “In an office environment, people tend to just kind of pop by when they need something. Working from home, people are more cognizant of their time.

“I feel like I have more energy just because I am not making that commute that every Atlantan hates.”

Dewberry lives in southwest Atlanta, and her commute to the agency’s central office on Covington Highway in DeKalb County takes about 35 minutes on a good day. As any Atlanta commuter knows, many days on metro highways aren’t good, so it can take her more than an hour sometimes.

Working from home saves her money on gas, wear and tear on her car, and on food because she’s not eating out for lunch.

“It would be awesome for me if I can continue to work from home some in the future,” Dewberry said.

Georgia Transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry told a Georgia Senate panel last week that traffic picked up in recent weeks as more businesses reopened, but he added that teleworking will remain appealing to many.

“We’ve been promoting telework forever,” he said. “I think we could have a bright future with a nice balance. You’ll have some congestion — that’s the sign of the growing, vibrant economy — but it may not be as bad as it once was.”

Wingfield of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation said the pandemic, the recession and calls for spending cuts provided agencies with the chance to rethink what they are doing, and how.

“I think this is one of those opportunities to talk about how you really transform how state government works,” he said.