Thought Leadership Thursday
Under Pressure: Serving Through a Pandemic
Thought Leadership Thursday Article
The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic on March 11, 2020. It has been a long year – a year of fear and loss, but also a year of unprecedented challenges in governance. Like many of you, we have had to improvise swiftly in New York State just to conduct our ordinary business. And we found – as we problem-solved and worked outside of our usual boxes – that the more we adapted, the more we saw opportunities.
New York City had the dubious distinction of becoming the nation’s first COVID-19 epicenter. By late March of 2020, the City’s infection rate was five times higher than the rest of the United States, and its cases accounted for one-third of the country’s total. An economic crisis followed and compounded the health crisis. In New York City, the unemployment rate went from a historic low of 3.4 percent just before the pandemic hit to 20.3 percent in June, the worst in the nation. Statewide, almost one-sixth of our workforce was unemployed. Revenues plummeted.
Amid this daunting reality, critical work remained, including processing the State payroll, reviewing State contracts, and issuing pension checks for retirees. New challenges demanded quick responses. Staff had to arrange for same-day payments to expedite the purchase of emergency supplies. Over the first 11 months of the pandemic, we processed $63 billion in unemployment insurance payments – 30 times the amount in 2019. At our request, the Governor waived the customary waiting period for service retirement, so the families of public employees who died from COVID could still receive the pensions they had earned. Later, again at our request, the Legislature gave local governments greater budgetary flexibility to cope with the new fiscal realities.
Several longstanding initiatives to increase efficiency by moving paper processes online were successful. For instance, 38 more State agencies began using our electronic contract submission system, and the share of contracts reviewed that way tripled. Since last March, we’ve added over 17,000 State employees (almost 7 percent of the workforce) to direct deposit.
As the pandemic upended routines everywhere, my staff and I realized that New Yorkers had a desperate need for accurate information to help them navigate this crisis. We created The COVID-19 Financial Survival Toolkit to address not only the usual subjects under a comptroller’s purview, but also to provide resources on issues like filing for unemployment, obtaining a COVID-19 test, and avoiding eviction.
The Toolkit was researched, designed and released to the public last spring. The webpage is organized by topic. "Paying Your Bills," for example, connects users to reliable information on mortgage relief, eviction protections, keeping the utilities on, student loans and more. There are special sections for veterans, seniors, people with disabilities and people seeking emergency food assistance, among others. Please take a quick tour of the site!
We had to evolve as an agency last year. The situation demanded it. While the fiscal repercussions of the pandemic appear likely to afflict our budgets for several years, there is hope with the success of the vaccination programs that we can now envision a return to something like normality. I welcome that day, but I think we should remember what we have learned. Our capacities are greater than we sometimes realize. I look forward to sharing ideas with you, and continuing to advance in our common mission to serve the people.