Louisiana’s state agencies had trouble transitioning employees to remote work

Legislative auditor’s report says consistent policies are needed

The stay-at-home order Gov. John Bel Edwards issued in response to the spread of the novel coronavirus required people in the public and private sector to work from home. (Image Source/Getty Images)

“This won’t be in the proclamation, but it’s we know it’s something that works,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said during a COVID-19  press conference two days before Thanksgiving. “I’m encouraging employers public and private to maximize the use of telework where possible. I’ve already directed state agencies to do this, and we’re urging others to follow suit.”

Work performed from home and not at the office spiked during the earliest days of the novel coronavirus pandemic when, according to a Gallup poll, more than half of the American workforce reported they weren’t going into the office at all. In October, the month before Edwards spoke, a third of American workers were still reporting that they were doing all their work from home.

But the state government’s transition into telework was a rocky one, according to a Jan. 28 report from Louisiana’s legislative auditor. In his report, Daryl Purpera blames that rocky transition on Louisiana not having any telework policies that preceded the pandemic.  “The federal government began establishing telework policies in 2000, with approximately 42% of federal employees eligible to telework in 2018,” the auditor’s report says. “In addition, states such as Washington, Nebraska, Tennessee, and Utah routinely use telework, and Florida, California, Connecticut, North Carolina, Oregon, and Virginia all had statewide telework statutes or policies in place prior to the COVID-19 public health emergency.”

“Louisiana does not have a statewide telework statute or regulations, and there is no guidance to assist agencies in developing telework policies or programs,” the auditor’s report finds.  Based on surveys of state agency leaders and state employees, the auditor’s office determined that “18 (56.3%) of 32 of agencies and offices had no telework policy and only 1,562 (16.3%) of 9,582 state employees reported teleworking on a regular or intermittent basis before COVID-19.”

When telework became necessary following the governor’s stay-at-home order, the absence of telework policies meant that agency heads and supervisors had to figure things out on their own and that there was no consistency across the state.  

For example, the report says, in March the Department of State Civil Service allowed agency leaders to “authorize the use of “Special Leave – Act of God”… to accommodate employees who could not telework.”  However, Purpera’s office found, “Some agencies required employees who could not telework to exhaust their earned leave before authorizing the use of Special Leave – Act of God, while other agencies used their discretion to authorize the use of Special Leave – Act of God without requiring employees to exhaust earned leave.”

The audit recommends that the civil service department “should develop minimum standards for what should be included in state agency telework policies,” should help agencies develop policies to accommodate “non-essential employees whose job duties may not be conducive to working from home” and “standardize the use of leave for non-essential employees whose job duties do not allow them to telework during emergency situations.”

The state’s civil service department and its Office of Technology Services responded to the audit without complaint. The civil service department agreed that policies need to be established, and the technology office said it will ensure that agencies and their personnel have the hardware and software needed for routine and emergency situations. 

Because Gov. Edwards made it a point to say that he had ordered state agencies to use telework, the Illuminator called his office for comment, but his office referred a reporter to Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne whose office determines whether state agencies’ performance goals are being met.

“It was accurate,” Dardenne said of the auditor’s report. “We don’t have any real quarrel with the content. It primarily pointed out the fact that nobody had planned for a pandemic and we were no different. We did not have a lot of folks working from home on a regular basis…for the most part, it was an ‘adapt to the new world order as it happened’ situation.”

Dardenne said he also agreed that it’s important to have rules in place. “ I think we’ll have policies — more refined policies — across the board than we had at the outset of the pandemic,” he said. “There are going to be some areas, obviously where this just doesn’t work. Prisons settings or medical facilities, it just doesn’t work. But obviously in other areas, where people are basically working from their computers and doing jobs that don’t require a lot of interaction with the public, this is going to lend itself to an evolution in the workplace in both the private sector and public sector.”

 

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Jarvis DeBerry
Jarvis DeBerry, editor of the Louisiana Illuminator, spent 22 years at The Times-Picayune (and later NOLA.com) as a crime and courts reporter, an editorial writer, columnist and deputy opinions editor. He was on the team of Times-Picayune journalists awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service after that team’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina and the deadly flood that followed. In addition to the shared Pulitzer, DeBerry has won awards from the Louisiana Bar Association for best trial coverage and awards from the New Orleans Press Club, the Louisiana/ Mississippi Associated Press and the National Association of Black Journalists for his columns. A collection of his Times-Picayune columns, “I Feel to Believe” was published by the University of New Orleans Press in September 2020.
JC Canicosa
JC Canicosa is an award-winning journalist at The Louisiana Illuminator. Canicosa has previous experience at Investigate-TV and The Loyola Maroon and earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Loyola University New Orleans. At Loyola, he was the senior staff writer at The Maroon and the president of the school's chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Off the clock, Canicosa enjoys playing basketball, watching movies and dabbling in comedy writing.