The Reopening That Wasn’t: As Government Employees Work From Home, People Find Services Curtailed

Everything from pandemic policies to security concerns is causing agencies to reduce in-person services, including licenses and permits.

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In the hallway outside the public advocate’s office in New York, on the 15th floor of the monumental David N. Dinkins Manhattan Municipal Building, a metal sign on the wall states that the office has walk-in hours from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday to Thursday. But the door is locked, and a paper sign on it has a contradictory message: “The Office of the Public Advocate is operating on a hybrid schedule and is only receiving constituents with an appointment.” Visitors are instructed to send an email or call a number if they want assistance.

The sign on the door is not a holdover from some earlier stage of the coronavirus pandemic. It reflects the ongoing practice of the office, a 55-person agency with a budget just under $5 million that serves as a sort of ombudsman for residents seeking assistance with city services or regulations. Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, first elected to the office in 2019, has decided for the foreseeable future to require employees to work in-person only two days per week, and the agency is therefore limiting public access to the actual office. “We’re modeling the hybrid,” said Kevin Fagan, its deputy communications director. “We’ve been calling on the city to adopt hybrid models where possible, to do remote work for health purposes and because that’s the way of the workforce right now, so that’s how we’re operating here at this point.”

The constriction of public access is especially striking for an agency that has “public” in its title, and it has drawn some criticism locally, but it is hardly unique at government offices and other public buildings around the country. Three years after the arrival of the pandemic led to widespread shutdowns, as daily activity has returned to pre-pandemic norms in most realms — from travel to schools to retail to the arts — the provision of government services and access to public spaces remains limited in many places.

In some instances, government offices and public agencies simply have taken their time in lifting pandemic-era provisions. For instance, the Chicago Transit Authority, like some other agencies, still asserts that freedom of information requests will take longer than usual to complete because of the health emergency. The Oakland City Hall only last month reopened itself to the public. And the Philadelphia library system only recently restored weekend hours at some branches.

But in other cases, as with the New York public advocate’s office, the reduction of direct interface between members of the public and the people being paid to work on their behalf represents a new normal. The diminishment of access isn’t driven by budget cuts; many agencies are in fact flush with funding as a result of the federal government’s pandemic recovery spending.

Rather, the shift is being driven by government officials seeking to accommodate a workforce that is as reluctant to give up the remote-work option as are many counterparts in the private sector. Elizabeth Whitehouse, chief public policy officer at the Council of State Governments, said that government officials are grappling with a labor shortage caused by an aging workforce, a skills gap and uncompetitive pay levels that the temporary surge of federal funds does little to address. As a result, she said, government supervisors feel they have little choice but to offer flexible work arrangements as an inducement to hire and retain. “The overall state workforce shortages are a significant barrier as states grapple with how to provide access to services and public spaces,” she said.

The result is that some public buildings that citizens used to be able to enter to seek help or resolve a problem now present a locked door or security desk requiring an appointment. For government workers, it can be easier not to have to deal with the public in an unmediated way, with all the unexpected demands and drama that can come with that.

But with less direct interaction, provision of services can suffer, warns Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University. “You’ve got to have human contact for a lot of these positions,” he said. “This is not a time for shutting down access. It’s when you want state and local governments to show they’re ready and open for business.”

“Lots of people want that contact, and it’s not good for the body politic to lose it,” Light added. “State and local government need to think about what they’re doing for their future base of support by cutting off direct contact.”

The cutbacks are impeding important functions. Take, for example, the process for obtaining a license as a building contractor in Maryland. The Maryland Home Improvement Commission, which oversees that process, has shifted its activities mostly online. Contractors report monthslong delays in renewing licenses, putting them at risk of liability for working without a valid license.

Seeking assistance in person is easier said than done. Some information online still lists the commission’s address as being on Calvert Street in Baltimore, but a handwritten sign at the locked door at that address directs people to the Maryland Department of Labor building on Eutaw Street, a mile away. At that building, a sign states that visitors need an appointment to enter, and a security guard rebuffs anyone who tries to come in otherwise.

One contractor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared putting his license at risk, said that after he finally managed to make an appointment online, the MHIC employee was late in arriving for it and wouldn’t let the contractor into the building, making him wait in the lobby while the employee took the application upstairs.

A department spokesperson, Maria Robalino, said that the appointment requirement “ensures the appropriate staff is available to assist the customer in a timely manner” at a time when the department is requiring employees to work in-person only part time, on average three days per week. MHIC, she added, is “fully staffed, but we believe the demand for services is greater than the staff we have in place, which may be the reason why we have service delays. We are diligently working to find solutions to this staffing issue.”

Similarly, the Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development shifted during the pandemic to an online system for building permits, but that system has been experiencing frequent technical troubles and is being revamped. When contractors go to the permit office downtown, they encounter a much different scenario than before the pandemic, when more than a dozen employees received applicants at a series of booths. On a recent Thursday, only three of the permit office’s 18 employees were working there, and the big “Permit Information” desk where visitors used to start the process was completely empty, with a dozen stacks of paper spread out on a counter with instructions on how to file an application online.

One electrician, who did not want to give his name, said that the experience had gotten much worse since before the pandemic, and that he now often waited two to three hours at the building. “Before,” he said, “they had more employees, so there were more chances of being helped.” The online system is “very tough, very slow,” he said. “And if you try to call them, to coordinate an application or speed up an application, it’s not going to happen; you’re not going to talk to anyone.”

Tammy Hawley, a spokesperson for the department, said it was aware of the problems with the online system and hoped to roll out a new one early next year. “We own the system functionality issues that we ourselves want improved,” she said. “We want a system that is more user-friendly for everyone and are well on our way to accomplishing that.” As for the long waits for those who come for in-person assistance, she said, “The permit office is open every day, but we do have a large portion of our workforce teleworking.”

In some cases, the reduction of access at public buildings is a product of both the pandemic and security concerns that grew out of the rise in civil unrest in recent years. In Richmond, Virginia, it was possible before the pandemic for the public to walk into City Hall through doors on all four sides of the building. There was a deli on the ground floor and an observation deck on the top of the building, 18 floors up, where anyone could go for a sweeping view of the city, and where city agencies and civic groups sometimes held events.

But in 2020, as protests swirled over the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and over Richmond’s decision to remove Confederate monuments, Mayor Levar Stoney started receiving threats. The city decided to give him a security detail. And as Richmond started to reopen access to City Hall as the threat of the pandemic ebbed, it was on much different terms. Today, members of the public can come in only through one of the four entrances; they have to go through a metal detector; and they need an appointment to go to any offices other than the ground-floor counter for paying tax bills. “It’s a more procedural sort of access,” said a city spokesperson, Petula Burks. She declined to specify what the in-person work requirement was for city employees. “We’re still working through our policies,” she said.

And with access to the building restricted, the observation deck remains off-limits to the public. This is unfortunate, said Justin Doyle, a member of the city’s Urban Design Committee, who used to bring visitors up to the deck or simply meet his wife there for occasional lunches at one of the picnic tables. “It really was a public space,” he said. “There was nothing else like it in Richmond.”

Security issues have also played a role in further limiting access to the public advocate’s office in New York. Several weeks ago, the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, which manages the building, locked the door leading from the elevators on the 15th floor to the hallway that includes the office. According to a DCAS employee, this decision was made after an intern with another agency was attacked by a member of the public who became agitated after finding the public advocate’s office closed. Around the same time, she said, another frustrated member of the public had a screaming tantrum in the bathroom. Sealing off the whole floor is a move intended “to keep our employees safe,” the DCAS employee said.

Fagan, the public advocate’s office spokesperson, said that if citizens do manage to reach the locked door of the office, they can ring the buzzer in the hallway, and if there are staff members available, they may offer assistance, despite the sign on the door requiring an appointment.

If citizens do succeed in entering the office, they will discover an environment that feels frozen in time, reflecting how little now happens there. On a recent Thursday afternoon, the desks sat mostly empty. In the waiting area stood a large hand-sanitizer dispenser and an air purifier. On the small table in the waiting area sat some reading material: New York magazine’s “Reasons to Love New York” issue from December 2019.