Kansas state agencies spent millions to help staff telework during COVID-19. Will that continue?

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
A sign instructs visitors to the Kansas Department of Revenue on mask wearing. State workers are set to return to physical offices on June 13, per Department of Administration guidance.

Carah Emory was having trouble concentrating.

"My dogs were being really disruptive and trying to get into the trash and everything else," Emory, an investigator at the Kansas State Board of Healing Arts, said with a laugh. "I was just like: 'OK, I've had enough. I'm going into the office so I can concentrate."

It is a feeling familiar to most everyone during the pandemic.

While working from home became a reality for many employees, little things — such as a spotty internet connection, a playful pet or a child trying to learn long division — often made the experience an adventure.

When Emory went into the office to try and regain focus, a funny thing happened. She became less productive.

"I spent more time talking to people in the office than I would have chasing my dogs around with the trash," Emory said. "It ended up actually going to the office was an unproductive thing to do, but at the time that seemed like it was a more productive thing to do."

As conversations about the future of remote work take hold in the private sector, many in state government are wondering if flexibility to work from home, either full or part-time, should be considered as a post-pandemic option for public sector workers. The possibility for increased productivity and some cost savings has made it worth considering in the minds of many.

Unlike many workers, Emory isn't a stranger to working from home — she teleworked one day a week prior to COVID-19. While some other state employees were in a similar boat, the majority worked in offices around Topeka and across the state.

As the pandemic has evolved, the option to continue working from home isn't just a perk for Emory's family. Her 14-year-old daughter is a cancer survivor and her household has tried to minimize potential exposure to the virus, even though she got the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Officials note such a move isn't possible for all fields — it is difficult to repair a road, patrol a correctional facility or staff a mailroom remotely. And when state workers return to offices in-person next month, most agencies will start with a default of physical work, when possible.

But state government agencies spent at least $8.8 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds on equipment, software and upgrades to allow for remote work, ranging from a $72 camera purchase in the Kansas Water Office to $1.4 million in audiovisual equipment for the Kansas Judicial Branch to ensure court hearings could be livestreamed.

How much of that infrastructure will remain in use moving forward is unclear. But many believe that the flexibility is an important option to keep the public sector competitive with private businesses in attracting employees.

"Why wouldn't we want to make people's lives easier?" said Sarah LaFrenz, executive director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, the union representing most state public sector workers.

More:Will Kansas have a vaccine lottery? Maybe, but don't expect a $1 million prize.

Agencies spend millions to ease remote work process

The remote work landscape has varied from agency to agency. 

In the Department of Agriculture, for instance, 40% of staff works from home normally in roles ranging from food inspection to veterinary medicine. For the Kansas Department of Aging and Disability Services, meanwhile, less than 1% of the main office staff were working in-person during the pandemic. 

The shift to moving state employees to remote work was a significant logistical undertaking, with some state workers not even having laptops before the pandemic. 

"This also has evolved over time, because those first few weeks, you know, (we were) trying to get people just so that they can work and function," said DeAngela Burns Wallace, secretary of administration. "And then over time, you know, we evolve what was needed and what we deployed." 

Federal funds were used to help speed the process along.

That includes a bill for computers, which stretched over $1 million, as well as additional money spent to acquire various software licenses, docking stations and webcams.

Think your bill for printer ink and toner is expensive? Agencies spent more than $9,000 in federal funds on those items to help with remote working.

For other parts of state government, the effort was even more wide-reaching. The Kansas Judicial System was the biggest spender of federal funds on remote working expenses, as it transitioned to conducting hearings remotely via Zoom.

And the Department of Children and Families spent more than $600,000 of federal money to create a virtual call center, where questions about agency programs could be directed after physical call centers were closed.

More:Kansas lawmakers agree to extend COVID-19 emergency — but end eviction, foreclosure ban

A state worker exists the Curtis State Office Building. Agencies are weighing how to let state employees work from home going forward.

Agencies assessing way forward on remote work

Under a May memo from Burns-Wallace outlining return-to-work protocols, agencies must develop a remote working policy if they are to continue allowing teleworking after June 13.

For most agencies, this isn't a problem — departments had those in place pre-pandemic and most are updating their guidance to reflect lessons learned in the last year. 

The Department of Administration guidance, for instance, notes a person is a good candidate to telework if doing so doesn't create more of a burden for colleagues, if information and equipment can remain secure and if a person is meeting performance objectives while working in the office.

Under the memo on returning to work, in-person work will remain "a preferred norm" unless social distancing cannot be maintained.

And agencies are generally confident in how they've rearranged office spaces to keep employees safe, although LaFrenz expressed concern over maintaining social distance in "cubicle farms" like the Curtis State Office Building

Some agencies will still allow remote work, however.

The Board of Healing Arts, for instance, will continue to give workers flexibility to work from home, the office or both, depending on what the individual employee wants to do and their job duties.

"it's a privilege, not a right," Emory said. "So if it doesn't work, or you aren't being productive ... you don't have to work from home. That can be taken away at any time."

But the fact that the BHA elected to continue it is a sign the agency recognizes the benefits for employees, Emory added.

In a December interview, Revenue Secretary Mark Burghart noted his agency had seen an uptick in productivity among remote workers and said his agency would take a hard look at embracing it going forward.

But he said the jury was still out as agencies grapple with the consequences for employees.

"This is kind of new to employees, and, obviously, to the extent they're productive it is good for the taxpayers of the state of Kansas," Burghart said. "The concern is that we have to make sure that we keep our employees connected. The concern is that if they're away from the department, not seeing each other every day, they may become disenchanted down the road." 

Burns Wallace emphasized that remote work wouldn't be ruled out going forward, just that agencies would use the pandemic experience to inform their policies on when remote and in-person work was required.

"There's not necessarily a trade-off, that one is better than the other," she said. "But that one is just a tool that we're able to utilize when it fits in, when it makes sense for that workforce for that particular job function, for that individual, for that office."

State facilities, including the Curtis State Office Building, will soon be open for business in the coming month. How many state workers will continue teleworking remains unclear.

Remote work debate turns political

But the issue of remote work has become a politically charged one.

In Missouri, for instance, Gov. Mike Parson initially appeared open to the idea for state employees under his jurisdiction.

The state's Medicaid director noted employees were more efficient at processing applications from home and fewer employees in the office would also mean less reliance on leases in private office buildings.

Last year at this time, he noted the state was "going to look at how we can make things more efficient." If that meant remote work, "That's fine, too."

But the Show-Me-State sent state employees back to work in person on May 17, even sooner than Kansas. Remote work? It wasn't an option.

Republicans in the Kansas Legislature were considering inserting a similar requirement in the state budget for employees to return to work by June 1. 

In the end, members elected only to require driver's license offices to reopen to the public by that date. While Department of Revenue motor vehicle facilities have allowed Kansans in for months, some smaller annex offices in western counties remained shuttered.

But the idea clearly had support among members. Some argued it would be a way for residents frustrated with the Kansas Department of Labor to more easily get answers, although the agency said many KDOL staffers will continue to work remotely due to construction and space constraints.

Rep. Ken Rahjes, R-Agra, the member who proposed the budget provision, said it was simply time to return to normal.

"We’ve gone through the last year knowing that this day is coming," he said at the time.

But for LaFrenz, the union leader, it is more complicated than that.

"Wouldn't we be treating them like grown adults?" she asked of allowing for remote work. "Instead of herding them in like children being like: 'Well, we have to have you here so we can watch you. Because we don't trust you to do your jobs unless you're here, even though you just did it remotely for the last year.'"

Is remote work a needed perk to keep pace with private sector?

As the private sector moves to embrace remote work, there are concerns the state will be less competitive in attracting and retaining talent — a problem that predates the pandemic.

Advocates have long worried about low pay and rising health insurance costs as a barrier to keeping workers around. A 2019 survey of state employees found that 76% of respondents disagreed or were neutral toward the idea that they were paid a fair wage. 

Lawmakers elected not to give state workers an across-the-board pay hike, with some members arguing a raise would be poor optics in a year when many private businesses struggled.

While this frustrated LaFrenz and others, they argued flexibility for remote work would be an area where the state could make up ground. A survey of private-sector workers from the consulting firm McKinsey showed 63% of workers wanted a hybrid or fully remote office when the pandemic winds down.

That is especially true as school lets out for the year, leaving many parents scrambling for child care options at the exact time they're supposed to return to in-person work.

Emory said if the ability to work remotely had been available to her during her daughter's cancer treatments, "it would have made that difficult time so much easier. I could have worked more and served Kansans better."

After discussions with counterparts in a range of state agencies, some sort of hybrid option was by far the most popular option, she added.

"There's really not a lot of value in being a state employee anymore," Emory said. "State employees are grossly underpaid. In some agencies, they're very mistreated. They need to be offering flexibility, or some sort of incentive to retain their employees, otherwise, they're going to be working for whoever's gonna give them what they need to take care of their families."