Amid 'Work From Home' Call, State Employees Navigate Varied Landscape

Mar 27, 2020

Gov. Chris Sununu and other state authorities have spent the past few weeks urging employers across the state to make big changes to how they do business, to stem the spread of COVID-19.

But New Hampshire state government is itself one of the state’s largest employers, with nearly 10,000 full-time and more than 2,000 part-time employees across dozens of state agencies. 

As an employer, the state’s advice to its workforce has been consistent with its advice to the rest of its residents: urging social distancing, routine disinfecting practices and flexibility for remote work wherever possible. But the level of flexibility varies widely depending on the state agency involved.

Sununu just this week implemented new emergency paid leave policies available to all state employees, meant to align with new federal provisions Congress passed in response to COVID-19. Before this change, which was swiftly praised by the state employees’ union, part-time state employees lacked access to paid leave or similar benefits, and full-time employees were instructed to tap into their regular sick time or accrue a negative balance to be made up later, if needed.

In memos distributed to state employees in recent weeks, the governor and state personnel directors also encouraged agency heads to “make every effort to support employees to work from home.”

Department of Administrative Services Commissioner Charlie Arlinghaus, who oversees the state’s personnel division, says the state’s IT team has worked hard to make that shift happen. And some offices are now almost entirely remote: The state’s insurance department, for example, announced Thursday that 80 percent of its staff is working from home.

“If you have more people working remotely, everyone is safer,” Arlinghaus said. “People working remotely are less likely to infect each other, and the people working in the building are that much better off because there are fewer people working in the building. Those of us who are here run into fewer people each day.”

But in some offices, employees don’t have access to state-issued laptops that they can bring home, making it difficult to establish secure connections to state servers needed to carry out their jobs from afar.

And, as Arlinghaus acknowledged, “Not every job can be done remotely.” While the state’s workforce includes plenty of office-based administrative staffers who, with the right equipment, can work remotely with relatively little disruption, there are also plenty of positions where that’s just not possible: correctional officers at the state prison, direct care professionals working at the state psychiatric hospital and veterans home, retail clerks at state-owned liquor stores, to name a few.

“The idea is to do everything you can with those interactions to make sure there is abundant space, to make sure the spaces that are in buildings are being cleaned much more frequently,” Arlinghaus said.

That’s easier said than done in areas of state government where face-to-face interaction is unavoidable, including the state’s high-traffic liquor and wine outlets — which have remained open for business, though with reduced hours.

Employees who work at those stores told NHPR their jobs have become much more tenuous due to COVID-19, even with all of the added health and safety measures the state has implemented.

Like employees at grocery stores or other retail outlets that remain open, liquor store employees come into close contact with lots of strangers on any given day. The New Hampshire Liquor Commission says it has taken “significant actions to ensure the safety of our customers and dedicated employees.”

“This includes implementing enhanced cleaning and disinfecting practices, applying recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on social distancing, modifying store hours, and providing flexibility for our employees to care for themselves and loved ones,” said commission spokesman E.J. Powers.

But the risk of exposure, several liquor store employees told NHPR, isn’t worth the reward of keeping the stores open. Some workers said they would be happy with a move to curbside pickup to limit customer traffic — which the governor signaled could already be in the works — while others argue the stores should be closed altogether.

“The people on the front lines are the ones that I’m most worried about,” said Ralph Mecheau, vice president of the state employees’ union’s chapter for liquor commission employees. While Mecheau has not been on those front lines at the stores this week — at age 65, with some underlying risk factors, his doctor said he needs to stay home for the moment — he’s concerned for those who are still there, given the chance that customers or workers might be inadvertently spreading COVID-19 to one another.

The New Hampshire Liquor Commission has distributed cleaning supplies and gloves to its employees, and has also distributed posters advising customers to maintain safe social distancing practices inside the stores.

Employees inside the stores have told NHPR those who have requested sick time or who don’t feel comfortable continuing on the job because of concerns about a household member’s risk factors have been able to take time off, if needed, without any objections.

But Mecheau, as well as several other employees who spoke with NHPR on the condition of anonymity out of concern for jeopardizing their job security, said some stores are left working with skeleton crews. That makes it difficult to keep up with the cleaning practices advised by both the liquor commission and health officials, they said.

Liquor store employees also told NHPR they continue to see lots of customers traveling from outside New Hampshire, including states like Massachusetts and New York, where COVID-19 is particularly acute.

Among those still working at the state’s liquor stores, Mecheau said, “You have people that are happy to be working and terrified to be working at the same time.”

Mecheau said state employees in all agencies, not just the liquor commission, deserve praise for continuing to serve despite an ongoing contract stalemate that has held up, among other things, cost-of-living pay increases. The union and an independent fact-finder have recommended 4 percent wage increases for state workers, while the governor has previously said he would only commit to 2 percent and has resisted calls to formally approve that fact-finder's report.

In a tweet Friday night, the governor announced a 10 percent pay increase for liquor employees, noting that the agency is "looking to hire additional part-time staff in the coming weeks." 

It’s not just the liquor stores that are stretched thin right now, though. The state employees union told members in an email Thursday afternoon that staffers at the New Hampshire Department of Employment Security are “experiencing burnout” while trying to process a record number of unemployment claims. The state employees’ union also said they’ve identified several agencies that are “still lagging in implementing a work from home adjustment for employees whose jobs can be done remotely and/or agencies that are not properly following social distancing guidelines as set forth from the CDC.”

Arlinghaus, who oversees the state’s personnel management, said individual agencies are given lots of discretion to determine how to implement new COVID-related workplace recommendations as they see fit.

“[The governor’s] direction from the beginning is that he wants managers to manage, and he's going to offer them a great deal of discretion to do what they can to make people safe,” Arlinghaus said.

If a state employee feels their supervisor isn’t adequately adjusting to make their job safe right now, Arlinghaus says they can seek support from several places: They can go to their supervisor’s supervisor, their agency commissioner, the statewide personnel office or the state employees’ union, which told members it is “working furiously” to address employees’ concerns about working conditions during COVID-19.

This story has been updated.