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Are State Government Buildings Opening For Business? Gradually

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
The state Capitol opened last week. An April 29 advisory by Department of Health Secretary Scott Rivkees recommended that government offices resume in-person operations and services.

Reopenings have come after an April 29 public health advisory by Department of Health Secretary Scott Rivkees recommending that government offices resume in-person operations and services.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has touted for months that Florida’s “open for business,” but it’s just now that state government is reopening offices, buildings and museums that interact directly with taxpayers.

And the opening has seemingly come in fits and starts.

Some agencies said their employees returned to work months ago after offices were initially closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the state Capitol opened last week --- and it wasn't until the middle of this week that state-run museums reopened their doors to the public.

Reopenings have come after an April 29 public health advisory by Department of Health Secretary Scott Rivkees recommending that government offices resume in-person operations and services.

The DeSantis administration won’t answer questions about which state employees have returned to their offices and how many continue working from home.

The Department of Management Services, which handles workforce and business-related functions for the state, did not respond to requests for information or comment on whether it had issued written return-to-work policies for agencies.

Many state agencies contacted by The News Service of Florida didn’t answer questions or provided vague answers.

The Department of Corrections has 25,154 employees funded in the current state budget, with 81 percent of the employees certified correctional officers or probation officers, according to department documents.

Michelle Glady, communications director for the department, told the News Service on Wednesday that “there are no employees teleworking due to COVID.”

While employees such as correctional officers can’t work from home, Glady didn’t say specifically when other employees had been asked to return to state offices. Initially, she said employees had been working from their offices for “several months” but later said they had been back at the offices since “last summer.”

The Department of Children and Families also is one of the larger agencies, with more than 12,000 budgeted positions during the current year. A spokesperson for the department said all “select exempt service” employees, who generally are in management and professional positions, have returned to offices and that the department is “phasing in” return-to-work requirements for “career service” employees and part-time employees. However, the department did not give timelines for the phase-in and didn’t say how many employees were classified as career service.

The latest available data on the state’s workforce shows that most employees --- about 81.5 percent of them --- are classified as “career service.”

The Department of Children and Families, in part, determines whether people are eligible for Medicaid and temporary cash assistance. Before COVID-19, the department promoted an automated system. But because not everyone has access to computers and some people need assistance filling out forms, the department also had at least one local service center in every county. They were all shuttered last year as COVID-19 spread across the state.

The Leon County service center opened its doors to the public May 3, center supervisor Pamela Williams said.

“We are not as busy as what we were before the pandemic,” Williams told the News Service this week. She declined to answer further questions about the numbers of people who have gone to the storefront for assistance. Williams said all local service centers across the state have reopened.

Meanwhile, the department’s administrative headquarters in Tallahassee remained closed to the public, and meetings that once would have been in person still are occurring virtually.

The state Agency for Health Care Administration has verbally ordered all staff members who have been working at home to report back to state offices Monday.

The agency administers much of the Medicaid program and is charged with regulating health care facilities.

AHCA has 1,526 funded positions in the current budget. The agency did not comment on the number of employees who have continued to work from home.

While most agencies are under DeSantis’ control, run by secretaries he appoints, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is led by Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only statewide elected Democrat.

Fried in March said she was extending the department's teleworking policy through Sept. 30. She will review the policy in early September to see if it needs to be altered, spokesman Franco Ripple said. But with 930,000 new COVID-19 cases since Jan. 1 and a weekly average of more than 44,000 new cases, Ripple said Fried is unlikely to make changes before the end of September.

Of the agency’s 4,106 agency employees, 1,931 have returned to the traditional office-based environment. Another 1,606 employees are in a hybrid work schedule, reporting to state offices at least weekly. The remaining 479 employees work exclusively from home, Ripple said.

COVID-19 not only stopped face-to-face operations at state agencies, it also led to countless numbers of state boards and committees meeting virtually.

For administrative attorney Julie Gallagher, that isn’t bad. Gallagher often defends health care practitioners before medical licensing boards, such as the Board of Medicine. Gallagher said virtual meetings are efficient because board members and staff don’t have to waste time traveling, Either do the practitioners being disciplined or the attorneys representing them.

“They have saved a lot of time and a lot of expenses,” she said.

Despite Rivkees’ public health advisory, the Board of Medicine’s two-day meeting in June will be held online.

But the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission held two days of in-person meetings this week in Miami.

Meanwhile, members of the Citizens Property Insurance Corp. Board of Governors on Tuesday took part in what could be their last virtual board meeting.

“I hope we’re back to a normal format in a room sitting around the same table,” said Marc Dunbar, a member of the board that oversees the state-created insurance company. “Hopefully, we can be at a normal table and not spaced crazy and have staff in the room so we can interact. Everything’s sort of back to normal. Everybody's probably either had it (COVID-19) or is vaccinated. So It seems to make sense for us to get back to the way we used to do things.”

Christine Sexton – News Service of Florida