Many state workers are still in state offices, facing risks of COVID-19. Why aren’t they working from home?

Tallahassee's tall Turlington Building is home to the Florida Department of Education. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

About two weeks ago, Gov. Ron DeSantis told state agencies to allow employees to work from home, as the coronavirus was expanding in Florida.

“If they can perform functions at home, now’s a good time to do that,” the governor said at a news conference.

But the Florida Phoenix has found that what DeSantis envisioned has not come to fruition.

Many employees continue to report to state buildings, facing risks of contracting the coronavirus and potentially spreading the disease to spouses and children.

“We are receiving a lot of concerns about working conditions. It’s a reminder that we need to prioritize our public employees,” said Kelly Benjamin, communications director at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union (AFSCME).

In addition, state agencies have not been clear about how they planned to follow DeSantis’s directive on teleworking.

State Rep. Ramon Alexander, who represents Gadsden and part of Leon counties, wrote a letter Monday to the governor, asking for “immediate action” to establish a uniform policy by executive order for state employees to work staggered schedules.

Alexander wrote:

“Governor, I fear that remaining open, even at a limited capacity for essential services, may cause employees with underlying health complications to have to choose between reporting to work over their health and may amplify the spread of COVID-19 virus in our communities.”

DeSantis’s remarks at the March 12 news conference implied that an executive order would be prepared, relating to some 90,000 state workers. At the time, the governor said, “I’m also authorizing state agencies to maximize remote working and telecommuting.”

But it’s not clear if an executive order ever came about.

A staff member from the DeSantis administration told the  Phoenix that an executive order was issued but couldn’t help locate it. The Phoenix looked through the governor’s executive orders online, and couldn’t pinpoint the particular order about state employees working from home.

DeSantis discussed telecommuting during a press briefing late in the day Wednesday, in response to a question about his policy regarding state agencies.

“As much as they can, we’re 100 percent on board with the telecommuting,” the governor said, but suggested it might make the best sense in crowded urban centers that rely on mass transit.

“I still think that to the extent that they can do it and people stay at home, we want to empower them and support that,” DeSantis said.

Jacqui Carmona, a political director at AFSCME, says state workers continue face uncertainty on the issue.

For example, workers from the Department of Corrections are required to report in person, but  “since last Friday, there has been a shift” in terms of more agencies allowing remote work for employees.

“We didn’t see immediate implementation of the governors order in regard to state employees working from home- but after a week we have seen an enormous shift within agencies, and many are now telecommuting,” Carmona said in an email.

Meanwhile, the Florida Department of Management Services issued guidance to state agencies for instituting telework options, or remote work. But not all state employees are eligible, according to the guidelines.

“Telework connected with a declared health emergency must be evaluated on a case by case basis,” the document says. “Not all positions will be eligible for telework nor will all employees be suited for telework due to a variety of reasons. However, telework is a viable option to assist agencies in maintaining continuity of operations during a health emergency.”

The Phoenix reached out to many state agencies to check on the status of remote working for employees. Not all have responded.

The Florida Department of Education said that many of its employees are “serving clients virtually” with a total of 1,423 staff performing remote work either fully or partially.

“That means almost 65 percent of DOE’s 2,201 workforce are now teleworking,” Taryn Fenske, director of communications, said in an email to the Phoenix.

The Agency for Health Care Administration said in a written statement that it “has already implemented a telework program and expanded telework flexibility this week in order to reduce congregate settings in offices.”

“AHCA estimates that roughly 50 percent of our workforce is currently working remotely. Our goal is to ensure the safety of our employees while continuing to serve the state of Florida,” Katie Strickland, communications director at AHCA, said in an email.

But if roughly 50 percent of the AHCA workforce is working remotely, the other half, presumably, would be in state offices.

The Florida Department of Financial Services (DFS) made an announcement through a press release last week that employees are working remotely.

“All DFS offices are closed to the public and all staff statewide are working from home remotely,” Devin Galetta, communications director at DFS, said in an email.

The Department of Revenue, which has more than 40 offices in the state, said in a written statement: “We fully closed our offices in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties (which house nearly 500 employees combined) because of the rapidly growing numbers of positive cases in those counties.

Unclear is whether the other state revenue offices are still open, and if state workers are working in those locations.

“DOR has begun implementing telework for employees who can perform their duties remotely with little or no interruption to business operations. We are also evaluating employees’ duties and available resources to determine opportunities for further telework,” the department said.

Florida Phoenix deputy editor Michael Moline contributed to this report.