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Thousands of Georgia employees unable to telework in face of COVID-19

It's been more than three weeks after Gov. Brian Kemp ordered Georgia employees who could to work from home in an attempt to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. But more than 10,000 state workers still head into their places of business each day.

More than three weeks after Gov. Brian Kemp ordered Georgia employees who could to work from home in an attempt to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, more than 10,000 state workers still head into their places of business each day.

Officials say agencies are working hard to ensure the state can continue to provide as many services as possible as the number of people affected by COVID-19 rises each day, and that requires many employees to leave their homes.

The governor’s office was unable to provide an estimate of the number of the state’s about 68,000 employees who are teleworking, but a survey of several Georgia agencies showed that at least 10,000 were heading into work each day.

“State employees currently teleworking from home are doing a fantastic job maintaining excellent customer service to Georgians across our state, and we appreciate their dedication to help flatten the curve as we fight COVID-19 and keep state government running,” Kemp spokesman Cody Hall said.

MORE: A map of coronavirus cases in Georgia

MORE: Real-time stats and the latest news on the coronavirus outbreak

But for thousands of Georgia employees — providing services including law enforcement, psychiatric hospital care and meat inspection — staying home isn’t an option. And social distancing makes it difficult for some services to be offered, leading the Department of Driver Services to suspend road tests and close some customer service centers.

Agency officials say they have put multiple safety protocols in place to ensure that employees are socially distancing, sanitizing and taking other precautions to keep themselves and others healthy.

For example, several agencies are allowing staggered scheduling for those who report to offices to cut down on the number of people in a space at one time. Others have increased the amount of cleaning done.

In the middle of a global pandemic, many Department of Public Safety and GBI employees continue to provide services, including patrolling the highways testing crime scenes.

“And despite what people think, officers aren’t out there in full hazmat suits,” said Lt. Stephanie Stallings, a DPS spokeswoman.

Stallings said hundreds of the agency’s nearly 1,600 employees are able to work from home. Still, nearly 1,100 officers with the Georgia State Patrol, the Motor Carrier Compliance Division and Capitol Police are taking safety precautions while working as usual.

“There’s always been an occasion where we may have had to put on gloves,” Stallings said, adding that troopers also have masks available if they want to use them. “Each trooper will handle things differently, as long as we keep ourselves as healthy as possible so if there’s a call for service we can respond and we’re not putting anyone else at risk.”

If someone is arrested, he or she still rides in the officer’s cruiser to jail.

“I know that’s within the 6-foot (social distancing) window,” Stallings said. “Unfortunately, it’s the nature of the beast with what we do.”

As of Tuesday, Stallings said no DPS employees had tested positive for COVID-19.

A GBI spokeswoman said the number of the agency’s 800 employees who telework changes daily. According to plans established March 16, GBI employees working in the crime lab, medical examiner’s office and investigation unit still go in to work each day.

The Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities is known for its work with those who have mental health and addiction issues, and about 4,200 of the DBHDD’s 5,300 employees work in one of the agency’s five hospitals.

That makes it impractical for those employees to telework, department spokeswoman Angelyn McDonald said. Those workers include doctors and nurses as well as food service staffers and housekeepers.

“As the new normal continues to evolve, we do so in a manner attentive to Gov. Kemp’s guidance on reducing the spread of COVID-19 while sustaining operations and services essential to the state’s behavioral health and developmental disability public safety net and the citizens of Georgia,” she said.

About 1,100 of the Department of Human Services’ nearly 9,200 employees work in positions that could require them to leave their homes. Those staffers typically work in positions such as residential child care inspectors and caseworkers investigating suspected abuse or neglect, DHS spokeswoman Tahni Segars said.

Segars said the department has ordered equipment that will allow more employees to work from home.

Department of Agriculture meat inspectors and lab workers are still going to work each day. Food safety staff are mostly teleworking, an agency spokeswoman said, but leave home to conduct inspections to investigate complaints or allow businesses to open.

In all, about 100 of the department’s 525 employees are unable to work from home.

The Department of Natural Resources’ game wardens and park staff make up the bulk of the 230 agency employees who are unable to work from home, a spokesman said.

Park staff are often relied upon to break up large groups that head to the state facilities when the weather gets warm.

Department of Juvenile Justice officials said as many as 2,300 agency employees — up to about 65% of the agency’s 3,500 workers — have to go into work regularly to monitor Georgia’s young offenders. One employee tested positive for coronavirus last week, DJJ officials said.

Other agencies said it was more difficult to provide an estimate of how many of their employees have to leave their homes for work.

About half of the Department of Public Health’s 860 employees are performing duties ranging from epidemiology to communications in their office each day. But an agency spokeswoman said it’s difficult to determine how many additional employees working in regional offices across the state are unable to telework.

And Department of Corrections officials wouldn’t say how many of the agency’s thousands of employees were working in the state’s prisons or other department offices each day. Many are corrections officers in charge of guarding about 52,000 inmates.

Central office staff are teleworking, a department spokeswoman said.

As of Monday, 11 inmates had tested positive for coronavirus and one had died. Eleven corrections staffers also have tested positive for the virus.