By Iris Hentze and Zach Herman
What do contact tracers and state unemployment system workers have in common? Besides performing specialized tasks, these two positions have become incredibly important to state governments as they work to navigate the coronavirus pandemic.
An adequate contact tracing workforce is a key component for states to effectively stay on top of virus outbreaks and keep their economies open. An adequate unemployment workforce is essential to making sure unemployed workers have access to state benefits. Both contact tracing and state unemployment jobs have existed in state government for decades; both have new relevance in 2020.
Contact tracing workers have been part of state public health systems for decades, helping to control outbreaks of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis ad HIV.
States prioritizing the recruiting, training, and retention of these workers in response to the pandemic are pursuing several different approaches to bolster their contact tracing workforce. They are partnering with local health nonprofits and businesses to hire new workers, retraining existing state and/or local government employees to fill the positions and recruiting students and volunteers.
Despite the focus on contact tracers, states are running into challenges reaching their staffing goals. Some states are having trouble recruiting the number of workers they need. In Alaska, the state had hoped to hire about 500 tracers but had only recruited 177 as of July 10. Other states are struggling with hiring and training enough workers fast enough to reach their goals.
For example, New Jersey received more than 50,000 applications for open contact tracing positions, but had deployed only 349 workers at the end of June, falling short of their goal of 1,000 workers. Still, other states successfully hired many tracers but have faced difficulty in retaining those workers. For example, Texas had about 3,200 tracers working in the state in early June, but since then has lost about 500 of the workers.
States are also coming up with some creative solutions to meet the needs of their unemployment workforce. States saw historic rates of unemployment applications following the series of statewide lockdowns during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nationally the number of new applications per week only just started to dip below 1 million the last week in August. This unprecedented volume of applications and the number of unemployment cases put significant pressure on state unemployment systems.
To meet this demand, states used various tactics, including a massive hiring push for new workers in state unemployment agencies. Two of the major tactics included hiring new staff and reallocating existing staff form other programs, departments and agencies. Approximately 15 states and D.C. hired new staff and reallocated existing staff to work in their unemployment agency.
Reallocated staff were either from programs within a state's Department of Labor or furloughed staff. States trained reallocated staff to process claims and learn their state's unemployment process. Reallocated staff often would also help with weekly certifications for existing claims, staffing call centers and helping staff manage caseloads.
The Families First Corona Virus Response Act provided states funding to implement massive hiring of new staff to their unemployment agencies. States have hired hundreds of new staff since the start of the pandemic. These hires included both rehirings of retired employees and new employees. Hires were for all kinds of entry-level staff, including for call centers, initial claims and continuing claims.
There may be no quick fix for these complex staffing questions, but states are continuing to build toward the contact tracing and unemployment system workforces they need. For unemployment systems, states continue to reallocate and hire new staff, doing this in conjunction with many other methods to reduce wait times and reduce their backlog of claims.
For contact tracing, local governments and universities across the country are stepping in to assist state governments. In Texas, the Brazos County Health District is partnering with Texas A&M University to train and deploy public health students as either volunteer or paid contact tracers. In Florida, over 400 public health students from 22 state universities are assisting state epidemiologists and public health officials with the work.
States are also continuing to partner with private companies and nonprofits to assist with the hiring and training of workers. Pennsylvania announced plans in August to partner with a private staffing agency to onboard 250 new contact tracers, increasing that number every two weeks until the state meets its goal of 1000 tracers.
New Jersey is taking a similar approach, working with both a private company as well as universities in the state to ultimately train and deploy 2,000 tracers in the coming months. This fall, as the weather changes and people have to spend more time inside, COVID-19 cases are expected to climb again which could mean more closed businesses and even more need for contact tracers and unemployment claim servicers.
Zach Herman is a policy associate in NCSL’s Employment, Labor and Retirement Program.
Iris Hentze is a policy specialist in NCSL’s Employment, Labor and Retirement Program.