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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Eighteen months into the pandemic, Florida's state workers are struggling.
COVID-19 outbreaks have closed departments and offices. Three state prisons are closing because of the lack of corrections officers. When their colleagues fall ill, some state employees say they aren't being told.
Gov. Ron DeSantis' efforts to keep Florida open have been felt acutely by many state workers, some of whom have been among the earliest to return to in-office meetings.
"The workers are very scared," said Vicki Hall, president of AFSCME Florida Council 79, which represents about 47,000, or nearly half, of state workers. "The governor wants everything open and running."
At the start of the pandemic, many of the state's roughly 105,000 state employees shifted to remote work, with some, such as those in the unemployment and child welfare agencies, facing unprecedented demand from applicants seeking aid. Agencies under DeSantis' control began ordering employees back to their offices last October. Masks and social distancing were optional.
Since then, state agencies have disclosed little publicly about how their employees have fared. But there are signs that some agencies have struggled. One of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission offices was closed this summer because of an outbreak. Employees at the departments of State, Economic Opportunity and Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles have complained to their union that they don't learn about colleagues testing positive for COVID-19 until 14 days after the person was sent home.
"Management is not taking it seriously," Hall said.
On Facebook, Department of Revenue employees publicly complained last month of not knowing when their coworkers fall ill.
"They don't tell us when people have been in the building sick," one Department of Revenue employee wrote. "We have to hear through the grapevine that someone is in the hospital or dead. If we complain, we are offered demotions."
Department of Revenue spokesperson Will Butler told the Herald/Times that the department has over 4,000 employees, "and like the community at large, has lost team members to this terrible illness. We feel that loss greatly."
Butler said wearing masks is encouraged, and supervisors have tracked potential exposures to the virus. He did not respond when asked how many employees have been quarantined or fallen ill from the virus.
Two Democratic state lawmakers who represent portions of Tallahassee, where many state workers reside, say they've been getting messages daily from workers concerned about the state's COVID precautions.
"Many state employees live in fear of making any noise," said Sen. Loranne Ausley. "They call us and don't even say what agency they're calling from."
Last month, Ausley, Rep. Allison Tant and Rep. Ramon Alexander wrote to DeSantis pleading for a return to remote work, citing a "lack of precautions" at some state offices.
"One state office in Tallahassee was recently closed to the public due to an outbreak of COVID-19 among staff," the letter stated. "We are witnessing a daily spike in numbers, and our state employees' health and safety should be a priority."
DeSantis' office didn't respond to the lawmakers. The office also didn't respond to requests for comment from the Herald/Times.
In his effort to keep Florida government offices open, DeSantis has banned school districts from imposing mask requirements and threatened to fine cities and counties "millions" of dollars for requiring employees get vaccinated. State university professors and staff, citing a surge in coronavirus cases this summer, urged DeSantis to drop those mandates and allow universities to set their own policies on masks and vaccines, without success.
Texas has imposed similar mandates. But some states, such as California, are requiring state workers to be vaccinated or submit to weekly tests. (California also didn't start ordering state workers back to the office until last month.)
Georgia is offering incentives to get state workers vaccinated: $150 gift cards or $480 in health credits for people on the state health plan who get vaccinated.
And state workers in Kansas returned to in-person work in June, only to be ordered back to teleworking last month amid a surge in coronavirus cases.
When the Herald/Times asked for information on safety protocols from the offices of the governor and the three Cabinet members — Attorney General Ashley Moody, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried — only Fried's office responded.
"Employees wear masks indoors and are encouraged to telework and socially distance when and where mission-critical work allows them to," spokesperson Erin Moffet said in a statement.
But how many state workers have fallen ill or tested positive for COVID-19 is unknown. None of the offices — including Fried's — provided data on how many of their employees have fallen ill.
Fried's office doesn't track COVID cases "in order to best protect employees' personal health information," said Moffet, even though data requested by the Herald/Times could be provided without compromising the privacy of any state worker. Some school districts, for example, are publicly reporting the numbers of teachers and students who are quarantining after testing positive for COVID-19.
State lawmakers haven't delved into the issue, either. Ausley, who sat on the Senate's Select Committee on Pandemic Preparedness this year, said she wanted the issue addressed when the committee met earlier this year. It didn't, but the committee was disbanded. State lawmakers met last week to consider legislation and policies, but the subject of COVID protections for state workers wasn't discussed.
Few state agencies appear to be allowing widespread teleworking, but lawmakers said they haven't gotten answers on which ones allow it or why.
"One agency (or even a department within an agency) would encourage telework while others would prohibit — and there never seemed to be any underlying policy reasons for the decisions," Ausley wrote in an email.
Florida has dozens of state agencies and departments, most of which report directly to the governor or individual members of the Cabinet. Some, including the Department of Revenue, have more autonomy because they report to the governor and Cabinet together.
Another agency with more autonomy is the Office of Financial Regulation, the state's banking regulator. That office allowed teleworking for investigators, examiners and legal staff prior to the pandemic. Since then, it has expanded a teleworking program to other employees. OFR Commissioner Russell Weigel said it's possible it helped reduce COVID cases among staff, although he said he had no data to show that.
Mostly, teleworking has allowed employees to save money on commutes and allowed the office to hire people in parts of the state where the agency doesn't have a physical office.
"They're saving hundreds of dollars a month, especially in South Florida," Weigel said. "It just makes complete sense for us."
The stresses of the pandemic have contributed to major staff shortages at some agencies. More than 5,000 positions are vacant at the Department of Corrections, forcing the state to shutter three prisons. The Florida Digital Service, the statewide technology department, has seen numerous high-level departures in part because of the stresses placed on employees from the pandemic.
"I get contacted daily about state employees who are fearful about getting COVID," said Tant, who co-wrote the letter to DeSantis asking employees to be allowed to resume remote work. "I don't think there was a single constituent who reached out to me who was not worried about retribution."
One employee sent her a photo of a sign at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission offices in July stating it was temporarily closed "due to COVID-19." Others have reached out to her office for help getting permission from their agency to be allowed to work from home.
Some agencies have been better at granting the requests, Tant said, referring to the Department of Transportation, although she said the agency recently turned down a request from one of her constituents. She said the requests often come from state workers who are caring for aging parents or young children.
"It shouldn't be a question," she said of granting the requests. "You never know the health issues that anybody has."
Associated Press © 2021