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Working from home here to stay for many state employees in Arizona

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PHOENIX — One year into the COVID-19 pandemic, many state employees are still working from home and likely will continue to do so.

More than 17,000 state employees currently work remotely. That’s up from about 15,000 last May. As a way to adapt, state agencies are revising their policies and business practices to accommodate larger virtual office teams on a permanent basis.

Lia Ballesteros is among those state employees still working from home. She’s a lead advocate at the office of human rights for the state’s Medicaid program, AHCCCS.

“We have been working from home since March 2020, and it has afforded us the ability to think outside the box and increase our service to the community,” she told KTAR News 92.3 FM.

She’s among the 64% of AHCCCS employees who will work from home permanently. That has led to one of the agency’s downtown Phoenix office buildings being vacated, saving taxpayers $1.2 million a year.

Ballesteros serves AHCCCS members with a serious mental illness designation. She said the biggest challenge at first was not being able to access member information. That problem was solved when all the data was added to an electronic filing system.

Another difference has been that instead of meeting members in person, she and other lead advocates are now reaching members through phone calls and video conferences.

“I feel like productivity has risen,” she said. “We were able to move our paper-based system to an entirely online environment while increasing the total number of interactions with our members. It’s an absolute win-win situation.”

Her office has increased member and stakeholder engagements from 7,012 in the six months prior to the pandemic to 10,167 in the first six months since implementing the virtual workflow.

Michael Keyack, deputy director of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, said his department is also seeing similar results. About 90% of ADEQ employees continue working from home.

Keyack said when the pandemic first hit, they had to quickly go virtual in a way “that everyone could stay connected and the work and the mission could continue to get done.”

“Our mission continues and our folks are dedicated to protecting human health and the environment,” he said. “That hasn’t changed at all.”

He added working from home hasn’t affected productivity.

“We’ve learned to adapt to what our environment is in such a way that we can still remain productive and interestingly, we’re starting to save money,” he said.

About six months ago, the department started consolidating and sold a facility in Tucson. It’s currently working to consolidate about a third of its office space in Phoenix.

“We’ve easily managed to save about $1 million this fiscal year, and we will expect to see an increase as we continue to go forward next year,” Keyack said, adding that the plan is to have the vast majority of ADEQ employees continue working from home.

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