Remote Control

Remote Control

DMV employees are adapting to digital operations while keeping communication and efficiency top of mind

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After the spread of the novel coronavirus was officially labeled a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11, jurisdictions across the U.S. were forced to determine how they should address this crisis. “We had an older playbook, developed in 2009 for the H1N1 flu epidemic that did not reach the level COVID-19 has,” says Spencer R. Moore, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Driver Services (DDS). “We dusted that off and saw how we could adapt to the new demands we were facing. It was a good starting point.”

Moore, along with many jurisdiction leaders, looked to sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for guidance on what measures needed to be taken.

“We mainly looked at two sources: the CDC and our state’s pandemic task force,” says Julie Butler, director at the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles. “We also had staff participating in weekly AAMVA calls. It has been helpful to learn what other jurisdictions are doing, and our approach is a collection of what we have learned.”

Turning this information into actionable directives, and ensuring those directives were effectively carried out, was the job of every administrator during the first few weeks of the pandemic. Many driver’s services centers across the country were closed, which gave administrators more time to determine next steps.

However, driver services employees whose jobs were considered essential (or whose jurisdictions did not have stay-at-home requirements) also needed a safe working environment. Motor vehicle departments addressed these concerns in the same ways many businesses have: mandatory mask or face shield use for employees and customers, plexiglass barriers in front of desks, social-distancing markers for lines, and increased cleaning and sanitizing.

In this episode, Ian Grossman speaks with Julie Butler, Director of the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles, about childcare considerations during the pandemic, and how her agency is tackling workforce management.

Pivoting to Remote Working

For Paula Shaw, assistant commissioner of driver services at the Tennessee Department of Safety & Homeland Security, employee safety was the first concern. However, she also saw the pandemic as an opportunity to accelerate changes already happening in her office.

Remote working was becoming increasingly common before COVID-19 made it a necessity for many businesses. The Tennessee Department of Safety & Homeland Security had begun the process of converting employees whose jobs could be performed remotely to working from home.

“The way we approached the pandemic was as an opportunity to continue a lot of the things we were working on,” says Shaw. “We were already moving toward work-from-home and bringing more services online in order to get to a point where we could shift individuals in our field offices to work from home in a rotating fashion. We took 107 people from our back-office staff [of 400–450] to work from home in probably two weeks. It was rapid.

For other jurisdictions, the concept of work-from-home was not on their radars. Moore estimates that, of a workforce of about 1,000 employees, prior to the pandemic less than 30 worked at home for any period of time; most of those employees came into an office on occasion. “We have gone from an organization that had less than 0.5% of people working from home to probably four out of 10 now,” says Moore.

Similarly, Charlie Norman, registrar at the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles, noted that working from home was not particularly onerous for the bureau’s employees, but getting the infrastructure ready was the biggest hurdle. “We needed a huge tech scale-up,” says Norman. “Suddenly, we needed 500 laptops, headsets and keyboards that we didn’t have.”

Norman also noted a common concern about working from home: monitoring productivity. While it is possible to remotely monitor productivity, some managers are wary of the technology. Shaw recommends preparing staff for the change in advance; when it comes to effective remote working environments, knowledge is power.

“The hardest part is enculturing it to an organization,” she explains. “We fortunately already started the process of enculturing it before everything hit, which allowed us to move rapidly. There was a little change in mindset that needed to happen—management was apprehensive because they couldn’t see their people—but once they understood the electronic tools they have, by and large they’ve adapted well. We’ve even seen it as a retention tool for positions because we know everyone has a life outside of work, and it gives them more flexibility in their personal lives.”

Working from Home – With Children

In general, flexibility is a common theme for industry administrators, and nowhere was that more clear than childcare. The pandemic introduced numerous variables, and for parents, one of the biggest challenges was having children at home and having to play the roles of babysitter, teacher and employee all in one.

“Early on I made a directive to our management team to be flexible as it relates to schooling,” says Moore. “The last thing we want is to make our workforce choose between schooling their kids and working. In a pandemic, we don’t want to create that extra anxiety as an employer.”

Moore took cues from other jurisdictions such as Nevada and surveyed his staff to determine which employees would be most affected by childcare during the pandemic. In Nevada, Butler and her team performed a survey in July and then followed up with a deeper, individual-by- individual, dive into the data.

“Our policy is every single one of our employees is essential,” says Butler. “We’ve told them we expect the 40-hour work week, but we are willing to work with them on how they get their hours in, such as split shifts, working later hours or coming in early. We also set up a subcommittee to review hardship cases. I think we’ve only had maybe half a dozen or so of those requests out of 1,200–1,300 employees.”

Re-examining Driver Exams

Usually requiring an examiner to get in a car with a customer, the driver road test has forced jurisdictions to develop novel ways of creating a safe testing environment. Here is how some jurisdictions are handling it:

Georgia: “We have transitioned to a contactless road test. At 40 of our 67 centers, we have routes that can be achieved on campus where every protocol or maneuver required by the test can be seen from the outside. Sometimes it takes more than one examiner for these tests, but because they’re outside the car, it is much safer. We’re also looking at new technology that we can put in a vehicle versus having a person in the car, but we don’t have that operational today.”

– Spencer Moore, Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Driver Services (DDS)

Nevada: “We looked at Georgia and Wisconsin and their closed-course solutions, but they weren’t practical for us because we don’t have the space. Instead, we worked with staff and our purchasing and budget folks to come up with a minimum PPE kit for examiners, including face shield, gown, gloves and mask. And we require they wear at least that PPE.”

– Julie Butler, Director at the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles

Ohio: “It was something that came up on one of our AAMVA COVID calls—I know every state is struggling with it, and different states chose different ways to handle it. Some states were using a modified testing system with the examiner outside of the car. We took that method, brought it home and revised it to meet Ohio’s needs. Since mid-June, we’ve done about 70,000 skills tests and 180,000 written knowledge tests [as of Aug. 26].”

– Charlie Norman, Registrar at the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles

Tennessee: “We used PPE and moved to an abbreviated test, which saved time, especially when the summer hit and there was a high demand. From June until August, we had Saturday knowledge test events to help anyone who might be waiting and also accommodate people who work during the week.”

– Paula Shaw, Assistant Commissioner of Driver Services at the Tennessee Department of Safety & Homeland Security

Mitigation and Compensation

While most employers and employees are doing what they can to reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19, there is always the possibility that someone will get sick or be exposed to the virus. In the case that an employee does get sick or need to quarantine, employers should have plans in place to communicate the necessary information to the workplace, deal with workforce shortages, and more.

Shaw recommends creating a check sheet that outlines all of the steps to take in case of a possible infection or outbreak. The check sheet should include who to call (e.g., leadership, media liaisons, appointment rescheduling), what should happen if a location needs to close (e.g., signage to alert customers, overflow to other locations), and the timeframe calls and tasks should be completed. This gives employees and leadership confidence that they are doing everything necessary to protect each other and keep business running as smoothly as possible.

While you can’t dictate how people act outside of work, Butler’s team has also been sending out constant reminders about ways to help limit workplace exposure, like social distancing and wearing masks. “We’re just kind of trying to gently remind everybody that, ‘Hey, just because you’re off duty, the virus is still out there, and you still need to be taking the precautions,’” she says.

As for benefits for those who need to quarantine or take time off due to COVID, there are provisions in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) that require certain employers to provide paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave to their employees under specific circumstances:

  • Two weeks (up to 80 hours) of paid sick leave at the employee’s regular rate of pay if the employee is unable to work because they are quarantined and/or experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and seeking a medical diagnosis
  • Two weeks (up to 80 hours) of paid sick leave at two-thirds the employee’s regular rate of pay if they are unable to work because of a need to care for an individual subject to quarantine, or to care for a child (under 18 years of age) whose school or child care provider is closed or unavailable for reasons related to COVID-19
  • Up to an additional 10 weeks of paid expanded family and medical leave at two-thirds the employee’s regular rate of pay if an employee, who has been employed for at least 30 calendar days, is unable to work due to a need for leave to care for a child whose school or child care provider is closed or unavailable for reasons related to COVID-19

These provisions are extended through December 31, 2020.

Predictions for a Post-Pandemic Workforce

“I think long-term, remote work is going to become the way we all do business,” says Butler. “As a result, I think the DMV is going to have to change its business model moving forward.”

Moore calls back to Shaw’s points about looking at the pandemic as an opportunity. “Like every other DMV across the country, we weren’t adding dollars,” says Moore. “We went into this fiscal year with a 10% budget reduction. And what has occurred is nothing short of a major process improvement. We have adopted an appointment-mostly model that would have taken years to implement. The team effort of figuring out ways to safely and efficiently serve customers within our budget, quite frankly, amazed me.”

Making more services available to customers online is also an important piece of providing service after the pandemic. “I think the one thing that everyone is probably realizing is that they need to increase the availability of online services,” says Norman. “Technology is a way for customers to receive our services without having to physically come into the office. I think everyone in this industry is coming to grips with that need. You look at the longterm, and you also think if something like this happens again, we want to be better prepared to continue providing services even if we are physically closed down.”

When thinking about the future of the driver services industry post-COVID, there are too many concerns to summarize them succinctly. However Chief Jeff Dixon of the Florida Highway Patrol may have put it best, when he explained his team’s approach to the future: “We’ll continue to do the things we have been doing to adapt for every challenge. We’ll support our members and their needs and operate as an agency to provide our services. We’ll adapt and evolve as the crisis continues, and apply the lessons of the past to our future.”

On the Road

For law enforcement, addressing workforce management during the pandemic required constant communication to keep officers safe. “In the beginning, it was a little difficult because the information was coming fast and furious, and everyone was trying to wrap their mind around exactly what we were dealing with,” says Captain Todd Hartline of the Nevada Highway Patrol. “We started pushing out an incident action plan, of which we are now on version eight. Every time we update that live document, we push it out to our people. It’s a reference guide, and if a situation occurs, it explains how to deal with it. That has been very helpful for us.”

Patrols also adjusted to new concerns arising from fewer drivers on the road and more people staying home. Chief Jeff Dixon of the Florida Highway Patrol explains that although the overall number of drivers on the road was reduced as a result of the pandemic, that didn’t reduce officers’ duties. “During the pandemic, members of the patrol were asked to focus on the most dangerous driving behaviors that contribute to crashes,” says Dixon. “On the commercial vehicle enforcement side, we recognized the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration [FMCSA] emergency declarations and our governor’s executive orders to effectively grant relief to commercial carriers that are transporting essential relief commodities such as food or medicine.”

As with motor vehicle departments, another big concern for highway patrols is cost. “There’s no question that budgets will be impacted,” says Hartline. “One of our sister agencies has already had to limit office space. [Even in the Highway Patrol] I see certain positions being transitioned to work from home. We’re also going to have to be more resourceful and do more with less, trimming budgets accordingly and staying within our boundaries.”

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