Public-Sector Workers Rethink Their Jobs as COVID Wears On

A survey of state and local government employees finds that the prolonged stresses of the pandemic are taking a toll. One in three have considered changing jobs.

Three health-care workers wearing masks.
Nurses with San Bernardino County Department of Public Heath activate a vaccination site. COVID-related stress has government workers worried about their jobs. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
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While two out of three public-sector workers are proud of their service during the pandemic, one-third have considered changing jobs, according to a new report from the Center for State and Local Government Excellence at ICMA-RC (SLGE). SLGE surveyed a group of 1,200 public-sector workers whose demographics mirror public-sector job distribution.

The report is the latest in an ongoing effort by SLGE to gauge shifts in the attitudes of state and local government workers about the impact of COVID-19 on their work, finances and job satisfaction. It compares findings from the latest survey, conducted in October 2020, to those collected in May.

The number of workers who reported that they felt burnt out or fatigued increased significantly over the six-month period, from 27 percent to 47 percent. Feelings of stress and anxiety also grew, but to a lesser extent.

Government employers were grappling with morale, salary and benefit issues, recruitment and retention before the pandemic, says Rivka Liss-Levinson, Ph.D., senior research manager for SLGE and author of the report. “These challenges were already there, and the pandemic has exacerbated them.”

Rise in Physical and Mental Health Concerns

Perhaps the most significant finding was that the number of workers contemplating a job change increased from 20 percent to 31 percent between May and October. To put it another way, the number of men and women unsure about their public-sector jobs increased from approximately 3.7 million to 5.7 million.

“The survey results show something that we’ve never seen the likes of in terms of the combination of worries they are having, from their physical and emotional health to their personal finances,” says Liss-Levinson.

Since March, 1.3 million
state and local government jobs have been eliminated due to revenue shortfalls. The $350 billion in aid to state and local governments that President Biden has proposed could stem these losses, but even so the public sector can’t afford an exodus of unhappy workers at a time when the pandemic and its social and economic impacts have intensified the need for its services.

In October, 76 percent considered their jobs to be at least somewhat risky, up from 70 percent in May. Almost half reported that their compensation is not in line with the risks they are taking, up from 32 percent. In part, this may reflect a decrease in full-time remote work from 42 percent to 16 percent over this period. 

Government employees are increasingly dissatisfied with efforts to protect them from COVID-19. In May, about two-thirds had a “fair amount” or “great deal” of trust that state and local leaders would make appropriate decisions regarding their safety, but by October only half felt this way. Trust in federal decision-making decreased from 39 percent to 29 percent.
trust-in-officials.jpg
Public-sector employee trust in government decisions regarding COVID-19 declined between May (dark blue) and October (light blue). (Graph: Center for State and Local Government Excellence at ICMA-RC)
These findings should be a wakeup call to public-sector employers, says Liss-Levinson. “I hope they help them understand why it’s so important for them to put in the resources needed for public-sector employees to be safe and healthy, and that includes their physical health, their emotional health and their financial health.”

Worker Financial Worries Increase

 

Non-traditional benefits can be key to retaining workers, says Liss-Levinson, and financial wellness programs would be a place for employers to start. SLGE found that public-sector workers are reducing spending, saving less for retirement, taking on more debt and dipping into emergency funds. “People who are distracted because of their finances are distracted at work and can’t focus on doing a good job.”

Her research has revealed that two-thirds of workers would participate in a financial wellness program if it was available, but only one in four state and local government employers provide them. “This is something where there’s really an opportunity to bridge the gap between what’s being offered and what the needs are,” she says.

Child care is another significant issue for workers who are telecommuting. Almost half of those surveyed have had to take care of children while working from home. When, if and how in-person instruction will resume at schools remains uncertain, and will vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Any step forward could be reversed if cases surge. 
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Telecommuting has created significant child-care challenges for public-sector workers. (Graph: Center for State and Local Government Excellence at ICMA-RC)
Difficulties in balancing work life and home life that frustrate employees can also make them less effective, says Liss-Levinson. “State and local governments should be thinking about what they can do to help with child-care needs, whether that's flexible scheduling, paid parental leave, or other policies or practices that will help make them an employer of choice.” 

As much as it is adding stress to the lives of government employees, the pandemic is also raising public awareness and appreciation of what they are doing to help their communities, she says. Employers would be wise to encourage and amplify such recognition of their service.

“We’re really interested in getting these snapshots at different time points,” says Liss-Levinson. “It will be interesting to see the effects of a new administration, the rollout of vaccines and how trust in government leaders might shift — there are still a lot of fast-moving pieces.”
Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at carl.smith@governing.com or on Twitter at @governingwriter.