Pandemic bringing lasting impacts to Santa Barbara County government | Government and Politics

The COVID-19 pandemic forced sweeping changes throughout Santa Barbara County government, some that improved services for the public and eased the jobs of county staff, while others increased pressure and workloads for employees, according to comments from department heads in recent budget workshops.

Its impact on human resources is one of the most far-reaching because it affects every department’s ability to hire and retain employees, and it is the root of many changes that were instituted, will be continued and are yet to come.

“Post-pandemic consequences have forever changed our workforce, and the county is not exempt,” said Maria Elena De Guevara, director of the county’s Human Resources Department.

She said post-pandemic fatigue is among the factors driving the so-called “Great Resignation,” and employees’ and job-seekers’ expectations of the workplace have changed, creating what she called a “candidate-driven market.”

Job seekers will be looking for improved benefits, a focus on their well-being, meaningful efforts at diversity, equity and inclusion, workplace flexibility and relevant and accessible technology.

She said the accelerated use of technology and digital tools improved employee communication, decision-making and the flow of information, but it also decreased dependence on hierarchy and bureaucracy.

That increased use of new technologies and staff demand for it will require upscaling the training required for employees.

“So from here on out, this training … or building the digital literacy of our workforce, will become an organizational responsibility,” De Guevara said.

While county departments experienced many of the same issues, others had unique impacts to deal with.

The list of impacts by department is extensive. But among the many changes, teleworking increased dramatically — 92% of the Auditor-Controller’s Office staff telecommuted, for example — although some departments like the Treasurer-Tax Collector’s Office and the Planning and Development Department remained open.

Social Services Department had about a half-dozen employees who were telecommuting when the pandemic hit. Six weeks later, that number jumped to more than 170.

Over the past year, 274 department staffers have done some work remotely.

But the department’s lobbies also were reconfigured to provide private, COVID-safe spaces where staff could meet with clients who preferred in-person contact.

The county and its departments received millions in federal COVID-19 assistance funds that helped cover additional services and increased costs, allowed infrastructure improvements and provided assistance to residents and businesses.

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But that also added to the workload in the Auditor-Controller’s Office, which had to track the complex American Rescue Plan Act accounting rules for COVID-19 relief funds.

The pandemic also resulted in state-level impacts that, in turn, had an effect on county departments like the Clerk-Recorder-Assessor’s and Elections Office — spawning Assembly bill 37 that changed some of the requirements for vote-by-mail elections

“You know, our main impact with COVID-19 was for the assessor,” said Joe Holland, clerk-recorder-assessor and registrar of voters. “We had to have staff go off-site, as many departments did, but most of our real property files are still paper-based.

“So we weren’t able to do a lot online,” he said, adding his office is starting a project to digitally scan all of its property files.

His office also experienced a somewhat unexpected pandemic effect: The demand for marriage services jumped more than 50%. Holland attributed that to other counties having limited resources.

“COVID over the last year has been quite the PR machine for Behavioral Health Services, which has also brought with it some key challenges and emerging issues for us, including the fact that our demand for … services has been growing while at the same time we ‘re having an increasing shortage in [the] workforce,” said Toni Navarro, department director.

Currently, the department is in the process of migrating online the balance of 160 services that can be provided virtually.

Navarro said the department received $3.8 million in grant funds that will fund a third of its requested staff increase, and ARPA funds paid for a survey of COVID-19’s impact on residents’ mental health.

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While the survey of 5,000 individuals found a 42% decline in mental health, she said the Psychiatric Health Facility served fewer people and the call center took fewer calls.

Navarro said that could be due to “COVID burnout” and people “hitting this new level of normal … about what constitutes a crisis.”

Wendy Sims-Moten, executive director of First 5, said the pandemic highlighted equity issues for children from birth to 5 years old and impacted at-risk families, especially regarding child care.

“I think the pandemic has shown the need to reinforce our safety net [to help] those with less opportunity recover,” said County Executive Officer Mona Miyasato.


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