Post Covid-19 and Administrative Leave
City Council – The country is now beginning to enter a phase of looking beyond federal and state directives that stipulate that we all practice strict social distancing and engage in essential services only.
As a result, early this past week, I began the discussion with department heads regarding how we return to work after COVID-19 and how our services provision model will change. Although I am convinced that we are still a few months away from settling in to a new “normal” to our city work, the steps we have taken and the adjustments we continue to make are allowing us to not only provide city services to our residents but also reduce the need for administrative leave related to COVID-19 operating restrictions.
In answer to Councilor Gray’s question regarding what will determine the end to administrative COVID-19 leave, I do not see a hard stop but instead a phased in process. This process has already begun. Departments are employing and refining alternative work schedules to allow staff to work on-site and yet maintain social distancing requirements. In addition, IT has purchased and/ or leveraged the use of technology to allow staff to work remotely to a greater degree more and more each day. I anticipate that there will be federal and state guidance/ rules promulgated to direct how we transition back to a new normal. However, there are certain elements that are already known, reasonable to anticipate or will never be a part of federal or state guidance.
As a result of the above, early this past week, I posed to all departments the following:
1. Start to think about our office environments in the future as “stay at home” orders are lifted and employees and the public return to our facilities.
We are seeing a lot of plexiglass in customer service areas and at polling places around the country. Is this something we should consider for our more heavily trafficked office reception areas? Should we consider any office reconfigurations, moving desks further from reception staff? Upon our initial return will we instruct staff to wear PPE in the office?
Are there other safety precautions for staff and the public we should consider?
2. As “stay at home” orders are lifted:
A. We need to develop a new philosophy and clear policies regarding remote work.
B. What positions need to be physically present in each office? How often?
C. Consideration for at-risk employees until there is a vaccine readily available?
D. Temperature screening?
E. Childcare will continue to be an issue. Especially with the early end to the school year. The COVID-19 revised FMLA provisions may come into play here.
I asked each Dept Head to present a draft of their thoughts to me by May 1st. I indicated that department heads should not worry about being exhaustive or polished with their report. The point is to have us start thinking about the future and start to form concepts to discuss and flesh out.
Some ideas for near future discussion:
Gradual/ phased in restart of offices.
Split shifts for staff.
Continue "work from home" while we transition over several weeks/ months back to on-site.
Re-purposing of staff unable to return due to the nature of their function.
Review and consideration of labor agreements. How we need to engage union reps in areas of mutual concern.
How to handle meetings of boards/commissions/ committees, not only to comply with RSA’s, but also in the most transparent manner possible.
Protocols and signage encouraging distancing in office space with line dividers.
Continue deep cleaning of surfaces, use of hand sanitizer, sanitizing wipes, etc.
Reopening playgrounds, parks, etc.
New emphasis on enforcing, "stay home when sick" policies.
Monitor the issues being seen in China & Italy where it seems that a significant number of people who had COVID-19 may become re-infected? Or social distancing restrictions may have been relaxed too soon in some regions resulting in a new spike of infections?
Department heads and city staff in general are eager to return to normal, whatever that may look like. They are taking my solicitation for ideas and suggestions very seriously and with creativity.
It would seem that until a vaccine is readily available, an altered way of life and doing business is here to stay for all of us. Governor Sununu has commented that New Hampshire is fairing better than many states during this crisis and he credits the early efforts all of us here in New Hampshire undertook to take this crisis seriously and respond accordingly. He also said reopening decisions will be incremental, “It’s not about being open or closed. It is about that there are various aspects of our society that we can flex open.” In addition, President Trump gave governor’s a 3-phase plan to reopen the country. We are working on our phasing plan.
I am proud to say that Rochester is recognized by our municipal peers around the state as being at the forefront of these efforts. We will continue to work diligently to remain a leader during this crisis and beyond.
I hope you are all safe and your families are healthy.
Blaine M. Cox
Rochester, New Hampshire