Resource Roundup: Ideas and Advice for State and Local Governments as they Face the Coronavirus Pandemic

The continued spread of Covid-19 presents employers with an array of unprecedented workforce management and public health challenges. The following is a roundup of facts, tips, and articles to help governments think through the many decisions that must be made.

How Far to Go

State and local government officials are shutting down schools and universities, canceling sporting events, concerts and conferences, banning large gatherings, and asking houses of worship to stop public ceremonies.

“Officials in many areas, particularly those hit hardest, such as Washington state, New York and California, have quickly moved from trying to contain the virus to using closures, quarantines, and social distancing to slow the spread of the disease,” Stateline noted. “Their hope is to buy time to develop a vaccine and prevent health systems from being overwhelmed by more patients than they can effectively treat at once.”

“It is important to make sure policies are consistent and logical. For instance, she said, “It wouldn’t make sense to close a school, but let its basketball games go on,” according to Stateline. “It also doesn’t make sense to close an elementary school where someone was infected but keep other area schools open. Kids have siblings who go to other schools, so shutting just one of them doesn’t necessarily solve the problem.”

“So far, public officials are demonstrating that they are willing to tolerate far-reaching social and economic disruptions to save lives,” the article continued. “Making those decisions becomes easier when officials see that their counterparts in other cities and states are doing the same thing.”

Another grave challenge for counties, cities, and states is protecting the health of those who are incarcerated, Stateline noted. Prisoners are in confined spaces where it is difficult to prevent the spread of communicable disease, and health care is often poor in jails and prisons. Iran temporarily furloughed thousands of inmates this month to try to prevent the spread of the disease in prisons, and some suggest that American officials should consider releasing some uninfected prisoners, “particularly those who are vulnerable, like older inmates. Jails should be thinking about releasing people who are only there because they can’t afford bail.” Inmate health isn’t the only issue here: “infectious diseases in prisons and jails don’t remain confined to those institutions. Correctional workers as well as released prisoners can carry the disease into communities.”

For more information about the measures being taken by state and local governments, Pew has a great roundup.

It can be difficult to decide how far to go, but “if it looks like you’re overreacting, you’re probably doing the right thing,” said National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci to CNN on Sunday.

States Cooperation

States are beginning to coordinate with one another in their coronavirus messaging, Stateline reported. “The governors of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut Monday announced a series of identical policies regarding closures. All three are limiting recreational and social gatherings with more than 50 people. They are closing restaurants and bars except for takeout service. And they are shutting down movie theaters, gyms and casinos. All those restrictions take effect at 8 p.m.”

A coordinated response makes sense because an infectious disease doesn’t recognize state boundaries, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a news conference.

Stateline points out that “working together might become more important for states as gaps in federal preparation become even more apparent. In a conference call with a group of governors Monday, President Donald Trump advised them to figure out for themselves how to acquire respirators, ventilators, and other needed medical equipment as a backstop to federal efforts.”

Pew Trusts has an interactive map showing what measures each state is taking.

Cybersecurity

“A sudden surge in the number of government workers reporting from home is almost guaranteed to strain IT resources, requiring employers to think about how operations will continue as close to normally as possible, according to StateScoop. “You typically don’t anticipate there’s going to be 100% of your workforce that’s going to be teleworking for an extended period of time.”

The article suggests that organizations “consider expanding their use of cloud and hybrid processing platforms for some bursting capabilities as loads spike. Governments are very high on their relationship aspect of their processes,” he said. “While that can work really well when you’re in a building, it is not nearly as easy to do when you’re decentralized.”

New guidance from the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) says that IT departments “will need to augment their help-desk capabilities, either through additional contract workers or virtual assistants like chatbots. But even before expanding their support services, IT organizations may have to give workers in other agencies crash courses in the technologies that make remote government work possible, such as voice-over-IP telecommunications and video conferencing platforms like Zoom or Microsoft Teams.”

“These systems have a host of advanced features and capabilities that are probably unknown to most of the state government workforce,” the document reads. “State workers have little experience working remotely with advanced configurations and call forwarding to smart phones. Pre-configuration, guidance and end user training will be required.”

In addition, organizations should expect opportunistic cyber attacks, StateScoop says. “Adversaries will look to some other impactful event as opportune to launch a cyberattack. Assuming people may be diverted from doing their due diligence the potential impacts could be greater than ever in the past.” Hackers have started tailoring phishing campaigns to prey on coronavirus fears, and at least one public-health agency, in Illinois, has fallen victim to ransomware as it tries to warn its public about the COVID-19 threat.” Therefore, “Things like basic cyber hygiene need to be at a forefront. Purchase some additional firewalls and get them to support increased VPN traffic.”

Coronavirus Scams

And speaking of online malfeasance, fraudsters are trying to make a buck off the coronavirus pandemic. There is no cure for coronavirus (and a vaccine won’t be ready any time soon), so don’t fall for Jim Bakker’s miracle silver solution cure.

Also, report price gouging to your state attorney general’s office. New York’s attorney general issued a news release about an Ace Hardware store in Manhattan was charging customers $79.99 for a bottle of hand sanitizer; and that a market in Astoria, Queens, was charging $14.99 for a bottle of disinfectant spray.

AARP’s fraud prevention program is seeing an increase in scams directed at people who are over 50. The group advises people to “look to trusted resources for information about coronavirus — the WHO or the CDC. Any time you see something that looks like an opportunity or something that will help you, engage your inner skeptic.”

Rural Concerns

In the State of Texas – like most of the United States – most of the coronavirus cases have been in large cities, but the virus is moving toward less populated areas. In fact, Stateline noted, similar coronavirus exposure rates are expected in urban and most rural areas, with the possible exception of extremely remote areas.

This is a concern in part because the average population of rural areas is older than the non-rural population (69% of the U.S. rural population is over the age of 65, compared with 35% of the non-rural population, according to January 2020 research from the Chartis Group, a health care consulting firm).

It’s also harder for rural residents to access health care. Getting a test for the coronavirus is especially difficult in rural areas, according to Stateline. In rural Presidio County, Texas, for example, severely ill residents are being sent to a regional center nearly 90 miles away – where they will be stabilized before being sent nearly 200 miles to El Paso. And it takes one to four days to get test results.

“If you have no place to go or if you have to drive an additional hour or two to get somewhere, people just don’t go,” Doug Farquhar, program director for environmental health at the National Conference of State Legislatures, told Stateline.

Employee Benefits

Each state’s declarations and related directives are slightly different, but, according to Segal, insurers are required to waive any cost sharing (copayments, coinsurance and deductibles) for any visit to diagnose or test for COVID-19 and lab fees to diagnose or test for COVID-19. (COVID-19 tests are currently offered through the CDC at no cost.) They’re also typically required to waive time restrictions refills for prescriptions.

The state insurance directives don’t apply to self-insured group health plans, but self-insured plans are being contacted by their administrative service organizations to make a decision about whether and how they wish to cover testing.

Employers should review their vendor contracts, HIPAA compliance, paid leave policies, and 401(k) plans for any potential coronavirus-related problems, according to a second article from Bloomberg Law. For example, “Employers should consider whether Covid-19 meets the criteria under their short-term disability policies and the effects of a potential pandemic on paid leave policies in general.”

Paid Sick Leave Options

As employers consider paid sick time policies, offer it to all employees and craft a written policy specifying exactly how much paid coronavirus leave is available, for what purposes it can be used (treatment, care, preventative care, etc.), and what notice and documentation will be required, according to HR Daily Advisor blog. “The written policy must specify when the paid leave will no longer be available and why.

Emergency School Closures and Paid Sick Leave

Employers should review their state and local laws to determine whether such closings may trigger an employee’s right to take job-protected, or paid leave, according to the Hunton Labor blog. “What employers may not realize, is that some states require that employees be allowed to use paid sick leave during certain school closing scenarios.  In at least seven states, school closings caused by a public health emergency are a qualifying reason to take paid sick leave. Several localities also have mandatory paid sick leave allowances that include emergency school closings.”

The blog also recommends that employers monitor developments in Congress. On March 13, 2020, the House of Representative passed a bill that would provide for paid leave for employees of employers with fewer than 500 employees to care for children out of school because of emergency closures.  Under the paid sick leave provisions of the law, full-time employees would be entitled to take up to 80 hours of paid leave because of school closings.  In addition, the law includes expansion of the Family Medical Leave Act that covers school closures, and allows an additional 12 weeks of leave.  The law only applies to employers with fewer than 500 employees.  Affected employers would be allowed to apply for tax credits to cover the cost of the additional leave allowances.  The Senate is expected to take up the legislation this week.

Remote Work

Create a plan. Identify the roles that are critical to your business operations and determine whether those individuals can carry out their jobs while working remotely, Fisher Phillips advises. “If you can proceed, the next critical component is assessing your technological capabilities. Do you have the support in place to assist with the inevitable questions and IT problems that will arise? Do you have sufficient security and privacy protocols in place?”

Prepare. The following steps will help you prepare for the possibility that your workers will need to operate remotely for a period of time.

  • Take an inventory of the types of equipment your workers would need to get their job done, including laptops, desktop computers, monitors, phones, printers, chargers, office supplies, and similar materials.
  • Encourage your employees to prepare for the possibility of an immediate instruction to work at home. They may want to develop a “ready bag” that they take home with them at the end of each day that would allow them to begin working remotely at a moment’s notice.
  • Make sure you consider and clearly communicate with your workers about which physical items are acceptable to be taken from the workplace and which need to stay in your location at all times.
  • Now might be a good time to digitize any relevant physical materials to make remote working easier.
  • Communicate with your workforce about whether they can or should take digital photos of physical calendars, whiteboards, Kanban boards with stickie notes, or similar items.
  • Take the time to develop a remote work policy if you do not have one in place, or review and update your existing policy as it relates to this specific situation.

Your remote work policy. Your policy should lay out the expectations you have for your workers as the embark on their temporary remote work routines, according to Fisher Phillips. “The number one item you should convey to them is that you expect them to help your organization maintain normal business operations during this period of time to the extent possible. Consider all aspects of their work and make sure they understand what is expected of them.” The article includes points to consider including how strict the policy should be (are workers encouraged from home or are the barred from coming to the office?), if there will be exemptions for essential personnel who need to be at physical locations, and whether workers need to be available at all times during working hours.

Being productive. Fisher Phillips offers tips for making sure the work-from-home experience goes well, including: agreeing on a single communications platform for all workers and honestly assessing your own concerns about productivity during this period. “You aren’t babysitting your employees while they are performing work at the office, so you shouldn’t begin to micromanage them while they are at home. Keep an eye on the bigger picture and track overall productivity, not moment-by-moment activities.”

A more likely problem is that remote workers will feel “untethered and disconnected from the organization during this time period.” You can help overcome this problem by “developing and distributing an agenda for all team get-togethers and meetings, as well as meeting minutes and task lists after they are completed, so that those unable to attend can feel part of the action,” and holding daily meetings and keeping in touch via frequent phone calls or texts.”

Still at Work?

If your employees can’t work from home, there are some measures you can take to help improve safety at work, according to HR Daily Advisor blog, including “implementing staggered work shifts; reminding employees to regularly wash their hands; making hand sanitizers containing 60 to 95% alcohol available; discouraging handshaking; distributing personal protective equipment such as gloves; increasing ventilation; and regularly disinfecting high-traffic surfaces, such as keyboards, phones, steering wheels, machine buttons, and manual timeclocks.”

If an employee seems to be sick. An employee who has a fever or difficulty breathing should seek medical evaluation, according to Fisher Phillips. But, they add, “retrain your supervisors on the importance of not overreacting to situations in the workplace potentially related to COVID-19 in order to prevent panic among the workforce.”

If an employee seems sick, you are permitted to ask them to seek medical attention and get tested for COVID-19. The CDC states that employees who exhibit symptoms of influenza-like illness at work during a pandemic should leave the workplace. 

If an employee has tested positive for COVID-19, you should send home all employees who worked closely with that employee for a 14-day period of time to ensure the infection does not spread. “Before the employee departs, ask them to identify all individuals who worked in close proximity (three to six feet) with them in the previous 14 days to ensure you have a full list of those who should be sent home. When sending the employees home, do not identify by name the infected employee or you could risk a violation of confidentiality laws. You may also want to consider asking a cleaning company to undertake a deep cleaning of your affected workspaces. If you work in a shared office building or area, you should inform building management so they can take whatever precautions they deem necessary.”

Note that employers can require employees to adopt infection-control practices such as regular handwashing, coughing and sneezing etiquette, and proper tissue usage and disposal, according to the International Federation of Employee Benefit Plans. The World Health Organization has a video showing the proper hand-washing technique.

Other strategies employers are developing and implementing include the following, the International Federation of Employee Benefit Plans reports:

  • Limiting visitors in the workplace
  • Limiting prolonged interaction with other people
  • Dividing teams across locations to create redundancy so that if one team falls victim to the virus and has to self-quarantine, the work can still be performed by the other team
  • Advising co-workers to stand at least six feet apart
  • Directing employees to work from home
  • Cross-training employees who work from home so they can fill in if employees who cannot work from home get ill
  • Designating employees to work from home who can be “swapped” out when on-site workers get ill
  • Limiting off-site client meetings
  • Videoconferencing instead of on-site or face-to-face meetings
  • Paying cash bonuses to employees and asking them to use the money to stock up on two to three  weeks of food and water
  • Encouraging workers to avoid public transportation and arranging carpools
  • Restricting travel
  • Requiring employees to register their personal travel plans
  • Expanding leave and PTO policies

 

Recession Rears Its Head

The U.S. economy has entered its first recession in 11 years, and it’s likely to be slightly more severe in California than for the nation overall, according to a new forecast from the UCLA Anderson School of Management. And that recession is likely to hit California especially hard; the state is expected to lose more than 280,000 payroll jobs by the first quarter of 2021. More than a third of those jobs would be in leisure and hospitality and transportation and warehousing. The report predicted employment would drop by 0.7% in 2020, with the second and third quarters contracting at an annual rate of 2.6%. 

The unemployment rate should go up to 6.3% by the end of this year and is expected to continue to increase into 2021 with an average next year of 6.6%. The report speculated that the recession could continue through the end of September.

Effect on Tourism-Dependent Areas

“The new coronavirus will produce economic crises in the states and cities most dependent on tourism, with lower tax revenue resulting from empty hotel rooms and canceled trips, conventions and events,” according to Stateline. “However, analysts predict those economies may improve dramatically starting in several months if tourist facilities can hang on until the pandemic subsides. Residents cooped up by quarantines are likely to seek relief from cabin fever at beaches and casinos, some experts say.”

Florida, a tourism-intensive state, backed off some of its coronavirus advisory plans amid concerns from the tourist industry. State health officials initially said anyone returning from abroad should isolate themselves, but they walked that back.

Hotels in areas that make a large percentage of their income from tourism are likely to see a “depression-like” crisis in the short term, Stateline reported, “but based on similar crises in Mexico and Thailand after SARS and H1N1 epidemics, things may start looking up after six to nine months.”

What about Our Community’s Small Businesses?

“The brunt of COVID-19’s economic harm seems to be homing in on some of the most vulnerable businesses and their workers — small businesses, particularly bars and restaurants, which are now being asked to close down at least temporarily to customers,” Next City notes. “Many restaurant owners aren’t sure if they will be able to reopen after two or more weeks.”

As local governments start to grapple with the virus’s impact on small businesses, some strategies are emerging:

  • New York City’s Department of Small Business Services is offering employee retention grants to businesses of less than five employees, covering 40% of payroll costs for up to two months. The department is also offering zero-interest loans up to $75,000 to businesses of up to 99 employees across all locations, to help mitigate losses. For these grants or loans, businesses must be able to show they’ve experienced at least a 25 percent decrease in revenue due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
  • Sacramento, California, passed an economic relief package including $1 million for small local businesses, including restaurants, retail and day care providers. Those money “could include zero-interest loans of up to $25,000 based on need,” and loans may be available as early as Wednesday, according to The Sacramento Bee.
  • Los Angeles is looking into the legality of preventing commercial evictions, the Los Angeles Times reported.
  • The city of Seattle, Washington, announced an executive order to defer business and occupation tax collection, provide deferment for utility payments, expand the city’s existing Small Business Stabilization Fund, and create a small business recovery task force.
  • San Francisco, California, announced a similar plan of deferring business tax collection, deferring business license fees, and putting $1 million into a new fund to provide small business relief grants up to $10,000.

Economic Stabilization

“To prevent the spread of the virus, workers shouldn’t be forced to choose between supporting their families and following proper safety and health protocols; thus, new laws are needed,” according to Brookings. In addition to stabilizing incomes, some cities are seeking to prevent the downstream effects of job losses or wage reductions. San Jose, California, for example, approved Mayor Sam Liccardo’s proposal to stop evictions for anyone affected by the coronavirus, and several other cities have followed suit.

The second major policy response among cities has been small business stabilization. “Last week, the city of Seattle announced that it will allow eligible businesses to defer business and occupation taxes, expand its Small Business Stabilization Fund, and provide technical assistance to business owners seeking relief from the U.S. Small Business Administration,” Brookings reported. And “New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio put forward a plan to provide up to $75,000 in interest-free loans to businesses with fewer than 100 employees that experience at least a 25% drop in sales. For microbusinesses—those with less than five employees—the city will provide grants that cover 40% of payroll costs for two months.” In Birmingham, Alabama,” the city and corporate partners are spearheading the creation of a fund to support small businesses through low-interest loans.:

Technical assistance is also useful, Brookings points out. Ideas include “helping less tech savvy restauranteurs connect to Uber Eats or DoorDash so they can take advantage of the recent spike in online ordering and recoup lost sales.”

Local efforts might not be as comprehensive as potential federal intervention, but they do have the advantage of speed. According to the JPMorgan Chase Institute, 47% of small businesses have less than two weeks of cash liquidity on hand, with restaurants and retail operating at the slimmest margins. According to OpenTable, year-over-year restaurant visits are down 63% in Seattle, 61% in New York, and 53% in San Francisco due to COVID-19.

Keep the Water Running

The cities of DetroitToledoSt. Louis and Atlanta have all directed their water utilities to halt shutoffs while the coronavirus spreads, Next City reports. They “have ordered that no household’s water can be shut off for nonpayment, so that residents can continue to wash their hands. Detroit is also beginning a process of restoring water to customers whose service has already been cut.”

Jails and Prisons

“Experts warn prisons and jails aren’t ready for a pandemic — and that could hurt everyone else too,” VOX reports. “The next site of a deadly coronavirus outbreak may not be a cruise ship, conference, or school. It could be one of America’s thousands of jails or prisons. Just about all the concerns about coronavirus’s spread in packed social settings apply as much, if not more, to correctional settings. In a prison, multiple people can be placed in one cell. Hallways and gathering places are often small and tight (often deliberately so, to make it easier to control inmates). There is literally no escape, with little to no space for social distancing or similar recommendations experts make to combat coronavirus. Hand sanitizer can be contraband.”

An outbreak under these conditions could “not only infect and kill hundreds or thousands of people in prison, but potentially spread to nearby communities as well. Visitors and correctional staff could spread the disease when they go back home, and inmates could spread it when they’re released.” And “Even an outbreak contained within a jail or prison could strain nearby health care systems, as hundreds or thousands of people suddenly need medical care that jails and prisons themselves can’t provide.”

Food Insecurity

Another concern for our communities is the millions of low-income older adults who lack access to healthy food and adequate nutrition on a daily basis. “Although social distancing is necessary to help limit the spread of the virus, anything that deters people from accessing group meals at senior centers or food banks puts low-income seniors in danger of malnutrition and hunger,” according to Brookings. “Millions of them also typically cannot afford to stock up on food or supplies, and if they can, many need transportation assistance to and from grocery stores. In light of this, federal, state, and local responders need to consider targeted solutions to ensure that food-insecure and socially isolated older adults (as well as other populations with barriers to food access) can stay fed and healthy during the crisis.”

Governments and non-profits have several ways to help, Brookings reported, including the following:

  • Shift senior center meals and food banks to a delivery model
  • Prevent utilities from cutting off power, heat, or water services during the pandemic
  • Launch awareness campaigns about food assistance and emergency aid programs available to older adults, including clear information about eligibility, medical deductions, and easy access to phone or video-based one-on-one assistance in the application and renewal process
  • Increase telemedicine infrastructure, offer virtual access to health care, and publicize availability of these options to low-digital-literacy populations in order to reduce the burden on hospitals strained by COVID-19
  • Offer to deliver groceries to your neighbors, family, and friends who may be facing food-insecurity issues (dropping supplies at the door to maintain social distance)
  • Consider ways of making grocery delivery accessible and affordable (or free), especially for populations with barriers to mobility