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Yes, We’re Open

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Sarah Sweeney
May 26, 2023

Three years ago one of the most difficult transitions that our office had to make was closing down our lobbies during the pandemic, and we’ve been returning to normal operations as the State returns to business as usual. Transitioning from full closure to re-opening back to pre-pandemic services, where clients are guaranteed a same-day safety net of services, has had quite the impact on staff morale and client satisfaction. We serve some of the most vulnerable clients in the area and it has allowed those clients needing on-demand services, to get their needs met in a timely fashion. Each day it seems we are busier than the day before, and on average each month we serve about 2,000 clients for any number of needs relating to cash or food assistance for low income individuals and families. Our staffing level has dwindled in the past three years, as the lures of telework and higher wages with alternative employers has drawn our staff away. During the pandemic many offices saw a drop in staff interested in full time office work, due to a preference for full time telework, and we are still recovering from that loss of person power by increased wait times in the local offices.  

As a public administrator it has been a complex learning curve to return to full service provision, after having spent the last three years in isolation and a mostly closed off business model. Entering the pandemic I was a fairly new supervisor and had to navigate the intricacies of virtual service provision, getting to know my staff and engaging with our customers and the public in a new way. I never had the opportunity to “know” my customer base, nor their needs, in a normal way and returning to full service has been a learning curve I’ve never before experienced. So much has changed in terms of returning staff to the office, opening our doors to fulltime operations and keeping up to date on changing policies and procedures. Having to staff our teams and having to make tough decisions on behalf of the greater good can sometimes bring with it more questions than answers from constituents and community providers. But it is important to stay committed to those decisions so that we can best support our communities.

As a leader in an essential business it has become clear that we have become a model for other agencies returning to full service operations by showing them how to maintain staff morale and customer satisfaction through change and service provision. I have written other articles about the importance of supporting our staff and simply thanking them for everything they do each day. Recognizing and calling out the work they do each day and putting them on the pillar they deserve is what I am here for. As public stewards and administrators we must be in partnership with our communities to recover from the past three years and continue to rebuild and heal from our experiences—this includes the people doing the work each and every day. I cannot do my job without my staff, and we cannot do our job without our clients. When the decision was made to return to full service my goal was to ensure we were taking necessary precautions to return safely and slowly so that we are setting ourselves and clients up for success; however we were given such a short timeline that we felt rushed as the frontline of support between those making policy decisions and those effected by them. So now I do everything in my power to ensure my team has all the necessary information and tools to perform their jobs safely and comfortably.

Throughout this time there have been multiple and seemingly constant changes so the better we understand them the better we can communicate them to our communities. I am proud to be a public administrator and this has been such a special time to be an engaged member of this agency and larger community of public servants. The long term side effects of this pandemic are sure to be felt and experienced for years ahead and so we must get ahead of that curve and acknowledge the work ahead of us. Ask questions, make difficult decisions and remember to take care of yourself and each other.

Author: Sarah Sweeney is a professional social worker and recent graduate of Seattle University’s Master of Public Administration program in Washington State.  She may be contacted at [email protected]

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