NCSL Podcasts

Lessons Learned: Legislative Staff and the Pandemic | OAS Episode 209

Episode Summary

Three state legislative staff leaders joined the podcast to talk about the long-term effects of the pandemic and how their institutions coped with the emergency.

Episode Notes

This podcast kicks off Legislative Staff Week, an annual NCSL effort to focus on legislative staff. This episode is part of three-podcast services focused on legislative staff that will roll out over the next couple of months.

Our guests include Sabrina Lewellen, assistant secretary of the Arkansas Senate and the current NCSL staff chair; Anne Sappenfield, director of the Wisconsin Legislative Council; and Jay Hartz, director of the Kentucky Legislative Research Commission. All three joined to talk about the long-term effects of the pandemic and how their institutions coped with the emergency.

They talked about how their institutions were affected, some of the innovations staff devised to cope with the emergency and some of the lasting changes resulting from the pandemic. There was even discussion of how a stack of table, a laptop and a camera helped ensure transparent government.


Episode Transcription

Ed:     Hello and welcome to “Our American States,” a podcast from the National Conference of State Legislatures. I’m your host, Ed Smith. 


SL:     So just for a little context on the time period for me and my state, between March of 202 through tomorrow, Arkansas will have convened for ten legislative sessions in the last 50 months.


Ed:     That was Sabrina Lewellen, assistant secretary of the Arkansas Senate and the current NCSL staff chair. She joined the podcast along with two other legislative staff leaders Anne Sappenfield, director of the Wisconsin Legislative Council, and Jay Hartz, director of the Kentucky Legislative Research Commission, to talk about the long-term effects of the pandemic and how their institutions coped with the emergency. This podcast kicks off Legislative Staff week, an annual NCSL effort to focus on legislative staff. This episode is part of a 3-podcast series focused on legislative staff that will roll out over the next couple of months. 


           The three legislative staff leaders talked about how their institutions were affected, some of the innovations staff devised to cope with the emergency and some of the lasting changes resulting from the pandemic. There was even a discussion of how to stack a table, a laptop and a camera to help ensure transparent government.


Here is our discussion. 


Ed:     Welcome Sabrina, Anne and Jay. Thanks for coming on the podcast. We are going to talk today about some of the challenges legislatures confronted during the pandemic and as important, what people learned during that emergency that helps inform their work now. You can’t speak for everyone working in the legislature, of course, but you all three are in leadership positions and it gives you some valuable insight into your institutions and I think the processes that they use. So, let’s start and tell listeners just real briefly what your role is in the legislature and then rate for us how much your institution was rocked by the pandemic. A minor shake, a medium quake or were the walls falling in. Sabrina, why don’t you go ahead first.


SL:     Thank you, Ed. I am Sabrina Lewellen. I am the deputy director and assistant secretary of the Arkansas Senate. I’ve worked in our legislature here for nearly 21 years, and I’m honored to be the NCSL staff chair this year. In Arkansas, I would describe it as an intense medium quake. We were called into a special session by our then governor in March of 2020, and we also had to have a fiscal session after that special session. So just for a little context on the time period for me and my state, between March of 2020 through tomorrow, April 10, 2024, at noon when we gavel in for our fiscal session, Arkansas will have convened for 10 legislative sessions in the last 50 months. It’s been an intense medium quake here. 


Ed:     Anne, how about up in Wisconsin?


AS:    I would say medium quake. One thing that helped us during the pandemic was that we had had a study committee in the interim in 2009 and it was a committee that studied emergency management and continuity of government. And part of that legislation that was enacted is recommended by that group set up a procedure for the legislature to meet virtually if the legislature, either House, issued a notice that the House was prevented from physically meeting at the seat of government due to a disaster which was broadly defined to include a prolong occurrence that threatens or negatively highly impacts life or health. So, unlike some states that can only have an alternative meeting place in cases of an enemy attack, we had more room to work with and each House was able to meet fairly readily once to pass pandemic related legislation. There were bills that were not enacted because of the pandemic because of a session that was supposed to happen in that spring of 2020. It didn’t really allow us to go forward with what we needed to do for the pandemic. 


Ed:     How about there in Kentucky, Jay.


JH:     I’m a bit of a contrarian so I don’t even know if I would describe the pandemic as a minor shake in Kentucky and that’s not to discount the people who loss family members or experienced some trauma themselves. I continue to thank my mother-in-law for giving me COVID because my sense of smell hasn’t returned so that’s not to discount any of that. Kentucky we never shut down. We never went virtual. We just continued on. That’s not to say some things weren’t different, but if you were to walk into our legislative session right now, it would feel exactly the same as it was when we first convened at the beginning of 2020. It wasn’t a big deal for us.


Ed:     I think that’s what I love about this country is things are so different in different places and people deal with things differently. It is endlessly fascinating. But I wonder, Jay, was there any specific challenge in Kentucky or maybe in talking to your colleagues around the country things that happened in other places that for some reason did not happen in your state simply because of the way that you guys handled it.


JH:     We did experience challenges, but most of our challenges occurred after the general assembly adjourned sine die. Like most states, Kentucky experienced a lot of folks applying for unemployment insurance all at exactly the same time. One of the things that I think is really great about this organization is when you call the Kentucky General Assembly and you want to speak to your legislator, a live human being is going to pick up the phone. We have wonderful people who work on our switchboard that answers phone calls. When you get connected to your legislator, a live human being is going to answer that phone call and that’s a strength. But it got out pretty quickly that if you wanted to talk to somebody about your unemployment insurance problem, call the General Assembly and somebody will be available to talk to you. You won’t get voicemail. And we could actually track through Facebook names of particular staffers that people had spoken to who posted on Facebook call this person. They are available and they will listen to you. So, starting in March of 2020, we received in about three months 12,000 referrals from legislators specifically from legislators not general phone calls from the public seeking help with where is my unemployment insurance claim in the system. We have seven people that deal with constituent services at any given time. We ramped that up to 20 and there were days that when I was everybody that was here including me all we did all day long was talk to people on the telephone about their unemployment insurance claim.


           We luckily were flexible enough that we were able to shift very quickly to providing that new service that our constituents needed. Obviously, we weren’t making the decisions, but we could at least. I think a lot of people appreciated they could finally talk to somebody and tell them their story.


Ed:     Well, I think that makes a pretty good case for legislatures being the legislative body that is closest to the citizens so I’m sure that happened in a lot of places. How about you Anne. Any specific thing or things you can think of.


AS:    Definitely. For me and my agency, the biggest challenge we faced was continuing to serve the legislature in person while the pandemic continued. So, like almost everyone else, we began remote work in the spring of 2020 and then the legislature came back into regular session in January 2021. And it was business as usual for the majority party. We staffed the standing committees which were meeting in person and public hearings. We’re the only agency that has that type of regular contact with the legislators and the public in that setting. You know we didn’t join forces and figure out how to address the concerns that people had about being in public during those times with my colleagues. So, we were sort of on our own as an agency. The challenge was really to balance the needs to provide services in the manner expected by the legislature, but while also respecting staff’s concerns about getting COVID. And of course, different staff weighed these factors very differently. Some worry a lot about the agency’s reputation if we didn’t proceed as if everything was back to normal. And then some were very worried about getting sick and maybe giving COVID to an elderly parent. What we ended up doing was just meeting as a staff and talking about those factors and how to weigh them. And I decided to do a full staffing because I felt like it was something that we all needed to be on the same page on and we all needed to buy in to the same approach so that we could recognize everyone’s concerns which were all valid. And also, try to avoid a situation where the people who were comfortable being in public at that point didn’t end up doing all of the work because that certainly would have been one approach to take. That would have been unfair to those folks. 


           From that discussion, we decided to staff all of our assigned committees in person and we all wore masks even though generally members of only one party were wearing masks as well, but I made that a requirement for our office when we were in the Capital for that period. And then, I also made sure that any of the guidelines that the legislature had set for how many people were in a meeting room that those were followed because it was easy for that to sort of slip through the cracks and have those hearing rooms get very crowded. And I have to say, it continues to be the most dramatic example I have of standing up for my staff instead of just following the lead of the majority party, but it worked out and we continued to provide the same level of service and quality of work and as a staff, we really supported ourselves through that supported each other I should say.


           TM:  10:56


Ed:     Well, I’m sure there were a lot of tough conversations like that all over the country so I expect a lot of people can relate to that. And Sabrina, how about for you. What stands out?  I know you and I have talked about this a couple of times and there were quite a few things that you had in mind.


SL:     Two schools of thought really. The first being just the preparation to keep going and so the execution of committees within the recommended help guidelines, maintaining social distancing, was a little bit of a challenge, but we figured it out having to create new committee schedules so that we had the space to have separate waiting rooms away from the rooms where the members were meeting. A lot more strategic approach than before to make sure that we were creating a safe of an environment as we possibly could. Our Senate also adopted some temporary operating procedures of what was expected during that time. We did have the ability for some members who could not come in to participate via Zoom so we had to install televisions in the chamber to make that happen and just really quickly because again we started so soon after the pandemic. The emergency came down with a special session and then moving into a physical session so just so thankful for of your legislative research, House of Representatives and Senate staff and the synergy that we had during that time because it was necessary. It was not an option and we really got it done.


           We also had to retrofit our chamber with plexiglass and to make sure that that was going to be able to work and we were able to do that. In addition, much like Jay said, just the things, the topics and the volume. The uptick was significant during that time whether it was PPP loan questions or unemployment insurance. Questions about access and information and wanting to voice various opinions. So, there was a different intensity for a period of time when it came to constituent work and we had to meet not only members where they were, but also constituents where they were as well. So again, continuing to keep going. Business as usual. Retrofitting things as necessary. Adopting the procedures we needed and meeting people where they were during that time was the play of the day every day for us.


Ed:     So, I think that you have already alluded to some of these innovations, but clearly innovations are what you come up with when you have all these kinds of challenges. I wonder if Sabrina, you can think of a particular innovation or a workaround either somebody in your legislature or I know you talk with people around the Country that you are aware of in another institution that comes to mind.


SL:     Each of us between the bureau and the Senate and the House we certainly made all sorts of accommodations as we needed to specifically. But the one I will share is an example of one of those we’ve always done it. So sometimes innovation is not what you start doing, but what you stop doing. And what we stopped doing was taking the original bills to every committee meeting. Committee staff used to have to come to the chamber and retrieve all the bills associated with their committee and take them with them in case a member wanted to see the actual bill. We stopped that just to help create efficiency and to cut down on interaction and it really changed things. So that extra step is one of the things that we let go of.


Ed:     Well, that’s an interesting way of looking at it. Jay, how about in Kentucky.


           TM:  14:23


JH:     During the summer of 2020, we did something that we had never done before which was through a YouTube page and Zoom showing all of our committee meetings. And that sounds a lot simpler than what it actually was because the people who were in senior roles before, I got here had the foresight to equip one committee room with the ability to do videoconferencing, but it was an older system. And as long as some people were in person, we could do Zoom, but we couldn’t do a completely virtual meeting and there was a committee meeting day for an operational issue. Members couldn’t be in the building. We had to figure out how are we going to let members participate in and let the public view these committee meetings. What we ended up doing was we put there was a table. There was another table on top of that table and then there was a video camera on a tripod on top of that table. Videoing the screen that could show the virtual and then we were streaming out through that other camera on two tables and a tripod out to YouTube. LRC’s staff’s ability to figure out how to make it work is pretty amazing and that’s an excellent example of within 12 hours we figured out how to do a workaround for a pretty large technological problem. 


Ed:     Anne, how about you?  Can you top that one.


AS:    No. But ah we for us it seemed like it’s kind of funny in retrospect, but it seemed like such a big deal at the time. We went paperless on certain things, and I know that our legislative drafters did as well so we had to adopt systems during that period to draft, review and edit documents and legislation electronically. And before then we I think thought we would never be able to do that. We are so used to working on paper, but it’s been a great change. We all really like it and it certainly creates a lot of efficiencies. 


Ed:     Thanks, Anne. We will be right back after this short break with the rest of our discussion.


           TM:  16:59


           Well, let’s talk a little bit about the long-lasting effects of the pandemic and I’m wondering, Sabrina, if you are aware of any innovations. Anne just mentioned one in her state that you think the legislature will keep in place or even ones you’ve heard about in other states.


SL:     I’m going to give it one shout out again. Sometimes it is what you stop doing. We stopped taking the bills so it is so much easier for committees to have to come back really quickly with their committee reports after committee. So, they are not hauling bills back. In some cases, hundreds of bills for us to restore in our chamber and so we are able to quickly read things across the desk when it comes back instead of the processing. Just that efficiency alone has saved a lot of time. But another thing, again, in our bureau in the House some internal tweaks that I am sure that they made. But one I would mention is we had just started batch voting not too long before the pandemic started a couple of years ahead of time. And by batch, I mean you know 10 to 20 bills at a time because they were usually all budget bills. And they were able to create an ability for me to choose whether or not we voted those batch bills with their emergency clauses or without and that alone made a difference in the ability for me to vote one time several bills with or without the emergency clause and process them. And that is really helpful when you are the only person in the Senate because everyone else is home during a pandemic creating all the rough journals so thankful they created that and that’s another just small tweak that we have added that we are going to continue to use.


Ed:     Jay, I’m wondering about in Kentucky. Are you continuing to stack those laptops on top of desks with the cameras or are there any other changes that you came upon during the pandemic that you caught onto.


JH:     No, I was able to access a couple of million dollars in COVID money and we retrofitted all of our committee rooms so we can Zoom out of all of the committee rooms. In any configuration that you can choose, we can accomplish in those rooms now. But what I was going to mention was we started to get a lot of phone calls from people concerned that they were unable to visit their family members in the hospital or in long-term care facilities. They were unable to attend funerals and people were passing away in nursing homes and they were unable to visit them. We determined that there were going to be folks through the holidays. It wasn’t that anyone wasn’t going to come visit them, but they didn’t have any family members that would be sending them cards. We started an internal staff program where working with the long-term care facilities they would identify individuals for us provided their names and the facilities that they are in and we sent them cards with the clear message you have friends in Frankfurt and we haven’t forgotten about you. And that has continued on. We now have an internal contest where we design a new card every year which our graphic design folks are able to put together for us and our print shop is able to create. We have a committee that identifies who we are going to be sending cards to and then organizes staff to get them filled out and addressed and then they put the stamp on them and they get sent out. I think that is kind of a special thing at a staff level we’ve continued on to be able to connect with people through the holidays that may not have somebody coming to visit them so that at least they know that somebody still knows that they exist. 


Ed:     Oh boy, that’s a wonderful legacy. The situation with nursing homes is such a painful part of a period that had so many pain points. Let me switch gears a little bit and ask you about in your institution how it might have affected the workplace and of course what I want to ask you about is remote work. And I’ve done some podcasts before about remote work and certainly some legislative staff or maybe a majority were working remotely during the pandemic, but has that continued Jay in Kentucky or how much was there during the pandemic?


JH:     We didn’t do any remote work during the pandemic. There were periods of time where the governor had directed that what I would describe as reduce the number of people in the pool, but we limited the number of people who were in the office on any particular day. And we just sort of managed our way through that. But coming out of the pandemic, we recognized that we were going to need to incorporate remote work into our benefits package. We have two periods of life here. One is during session and the other is what we describe as the interim so we do allow some remote work during the interim period. Frankfurt is not near Lexington. Frankfurt isn’t near Louisville. Those are where the talented people many of them are so to be able to continue to attract the kind of people that we need to work here, I think remote work will be part of our benefits package going forward.


Ed:     Sabrina, how about there in Arkansas. What’s been the deal with remote work?


           TM:  23:24


SL:     In Arkansas, the Senate did not adopt any remote work options or policies during the pandemic and we still have not. We are a small staff, a chamber staff, and we have a lot of space so we did what we could during the height of the pandemic to spread out and make sure that we had the space available to do what we needed to do. So, at this point, we haven’t adopted any remote work policies. Our bureau, our supports, legislative agencies have and certainly through the executive branch. So much of what we do as a chamber staff is just directly attached to certain components in the building, in the State Capital building, are systems that we use here and in our interim, we have a lot of committee and subcommittee meetings and work. And during the interim that important face time and interaction with senators just simply doesn’t stop as chamber staff so remote is not currently something we do here at the Senate.


Ed:     It is always interesting to see the different ways people approach it. How about in Wisconsin, Anne?


AS:    In Wisconsin, we have six non-partisan service agencies and then we have the clerks and sergeant’s offices, but also each legislator has personal staff so for the personal staff the decisions about remote work are made by the caucuses. There has been some variation among the caucuses, but there is some remote going on in the capital building. For the service agencies, we all allow for some type of amount of remote work at this point, but the extent of it depends on the agency and depends on when we are in session and what the needs are across the street. And you know it really has its challenges, but I don’t think my agency that we will go back to full-time in the office and be able to retain our staff. I really want to retain my staff, so I think this is where we are going to be from here on out.


Ed:     OK, so a little bit of a different look in each of your states. OK, so now I’m going to put you all on the spot and ask for a lesson or best practice that you personally learned as a result of the pandemic and Anne, why don’t you go ahead.


AS:    Well, I have two if that’s OK. So first as I discussed earlier, the pandemic really forced me to go to bat for our staff and for those of you who have done the TRACOM assessment, I’m an amiable and so my first instinct is to go along to get along and I had to really push myself. I’m thankful for that experience because it was important for me to develop more comfort in using those types of skills. And then a second, I think a huge lesson for all of us was that we can succeed and improve even in the face of big challenges and all of us as legislative staff adapted within an environment that is very slow to change. We innovated while we were continuing to provide excellent service to our legislatures and then by virtue of that to our states.


Ed:     Jay, how about for you. Any lesson or best practice that stayed with you.


JH:     I do have a thought on that, but first I would be remiss if the few people who have made it this far into this podcast, if I did not note this is your Easter egg, that if I did not note that registration for the NCSL Legislative Summit in Louisville is now open on the NCSL webpage. So, I would encourage you to register for the Summit and come to Louisville. It’s going to be a great conference. I’ve seen some preliminaries on speakers and session and that’s going to be top notch. We are going to be going to Churchill Downs. There will be live horseracing at Churchill Downs that evening. Bring a bowtie or bring a fancy hat. Dress like you are going to be going to the races and register to come to the Legislative Summit. But with that said, any lesson or best practice that stayed with me, I would say that the core thing that got at least my and I hope my other senior managers through the COVID experience is we had a really firm grasp on why we were doing things. That made it really easy to do modifications because we understood why we were doing it. I saw a lot of other organizations get tied up on how they do things and this is how we do it. And if we don’t do it the best way, that’s not how we are doing it. And we always focused on why do we do something so the questions about how to modify something to get to where we needed to be, we never got into arguments about well we’ve never done it that way before or you can’t do it that way cause that’s not how we do it. We were very focused on why we do something.


Ed:     Sabrina, how about you? Lesson or best practice.


SL:     It really was a reiteration of a lesson or best practice I’ve had in place as a human for a while, but just a 2.0 version of it. Every crucible moment matters. Every crisis chapter counters that you go through. You really need to learn all you can and dismiss nothing because you never know when something may arise where a lesson or a practice that you’ve learned before been there done that comes back up and you need to apply it. And this was just a reiteration of a lesson my mother taught me. Nothing I do is ever small; don’t dismiss it. Take notes. Be a student of what’s happening and that’s what I’ve tried to do since I came to this Senate, but more intensely since 2015 when I started to learn the various positions as a secretary of those who do those jobs in our chamber along the line that support our secretary of the senate. And boy did the crucible moment come in March of 2020 when my principal, my secretary had to be out for an injury, I had to step up and run everything in the Senate doing my job and just with a streamlined staff and session staff that came in. Had to do it again 2023 when my principal had to be out again due to an injury so it just really pays to dismiss nothing and pay attention, take your notes and utilize them when you need to. And the pandemic highlighted that for me as an individual staffer and I think for us as chamber staff as well. The lessons we’ve learned in past we were able to utilize those and make things happen and keep things moving for now our 10th session when we gavel in tomorrow.


           TM:  29:55


Ed:     Well, I think for a lot of people the amount of resilience they found out that they had during the pandemic was a lesson to hold onto and I think this has been a great discussion and a real reminder of both what a trial by fire the pandemic was for many legislative staff. So, let’s wrap this up. From each of you, one word you have used to describe the importance of legislative staff and why. And Sabrina, why don’t you go ahead.


SL:     Without question, my word is indispensable and that is what I have been saying this year from staff chair to staff. Legislative staff are the indispensable facilitators of our democracy. There are 7,386 state level legislators across the states and the commonwealths and our territories are very, very important. But it is legislative staff that are the muscle memory and the institutional guardians and the committed facilitators of the engines of our democracy which are our state legislatures so thank you to legislative staff for all that you bring and your service and your incredible dedication. You are indispensable. 


Ed:     Jay, how about you. What’s your word?


JH:     The word I would use integrity and I chose that word thinking about my organizations COVID experience. Because of that integrity, I didn’t have to worry about being micromanaged by the Speaker or the Senate President. They knew that we were going to act like adults. They knew that we had the best interest of the legislative branch of government in mind so they let us do what we needed to do to be able to get them what they needed which freed them up to be able to worry about the things they need to worry about policy, member management. What is it that’s actually going to get voted on and in what form it will be voted on.


Ed:     And Anne, you get the last word.


AS:    My word is steady. I feel like no matter what’s going on in the Capital, in the state, in the world that we are always doing our work. We are doing it well. We help the important things continue to happen every day and provide the information that legislators need and the organization that legislators need to succeed in their jobs. And I’m really proud that we can be the calm and the ones who like Jay was saying that the legislators can trust to get things done and so that they can focus on what’s important to them as well.


Ed:     Well again, what a great discussion and thanks to all three of you for taking the time to do this. And thanks to you for the work that you do in legislatures. Take care.


AS:    Thank you, Ed.


SL:     Thank you so much.


Ed:     I’ve been talking with Sabrina Lewellen from Arkansas, Anne Sappenfield from Wisconsin and Jay Hartz from Kentucky about the long-term effects of the pandemic and how their legislatures coped with the emergency.


           TM:  33:17


You can check out all the podcasts from the National Conference of State Legislatures by searching for NCSL podcasts wherever you get your podcasts. This podcast “Our American States” dives into some of the most challenging public policy issues facing legislators. On “Across the Aisle” host Kelley Griffin tells stories of bipartisanship. Also check out our special series “Building Democracy” on the history of legislatures.