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May 21, 2024 3:36 pm

Local News

State Agencies Strapped by Labor Shortages Eye $18.6 Million in Tech Upgrades as a Solution

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by Annmarie Timmins, New Hampshire Bulletin

With more than 200 town and city offices relying on it for a steady supply of license plates and renewal decals, the Department of Safety says it can’t afford staff vacancies. Revenue Administration officials say the same as workers process hundreds of paper tax forms and payments – with an outdated scanner. 

A number of other state agencies cite similar circumstances and have identified a solution: $18.6 million in modern technology, more than they would ask for in their agency budget. Funding may no longer be a challenge thanks to millions in federal pandemic recovery money. 

Nine departments have identified a range of technology upgrades, from tools like tablets and scanners to computer systems that would reduce their reliance on paper – and people to process it. The requests, which are expected to go before the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee Friday, are part of the State Workforce Efficiency Enhancement Program led by the Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery, which requires the money be used for one-time technology purchases. 

“The governor has told all of us the same thing: We have to get used to this very competitive recruiting effort,” said Ken Merrifield, commissioner of the Department of Labor. His workforce is down 23 percent. “You make investments like this in one-time technology that can save man hours, and it can make the difference between being able to serve customers efficiently or not.”

There are more than 500 state job postings on the Department of Administrative Services’ website. But Commissioner Charlie Arlinghaus said that’s not the best measure of the state’s vacancy rate because agencies are not actively recruiting for all jobs at once. And it’s not uncommon for a state with 10,000 jobs to have a 10 to 14 percent vacancy rate, he said. 

Arlinghaus said a better measure is the number of filled positions, which was 8,900 before the pandemic and 8,700 now. 

Recruiting new hires is critical but New Hampshire employment data suggests it won’t be enough. According to the Department of Employment Security’s “The Great Resignation” labor market analysis, the state labor force, which includes all potential workers, those employed and unemployed, dropped 17,400 people from November 2019 to May 2022.

State agencies are looking to technology to not only eliminate some jobs but also improve access to the public.

Since he started nearly five years ago, Merrifield has prioritized improving his agency’s technology. The department received $1.7 million in its two most recent budgets to upgrade the system handling the hundreds of documents it receives annually and begin migrating those records from 40-year-old technology to a cloud-based system. 

The changes will allow the public to submit documents electronically, rather than by mail, fax, or email, all of which require an employee to enter the data manually. Now, Merrifield hopes to get $495,000 in pandemic aid to add additional enhancements he didn’t include in his budget. 

“We were trying to be more frugal,” he said. “But these are things that we think will really enhance the customer experience here.” 

The Department of Corrections is seeking $1.8 million for a technology pilot project it believes will reduce stress for employees, especially as they are down 37 percent of their corrections officers and 34 percent of all staff.

Assistant Commissioner Paul Raymond said part of the project will put tablets in the hands of corrections officers so they can file incident reports from inside the walls; currently they must leave their post to use a desktop computer. The technology upgrade will also eliminate paper copies and the need for a staff person to hand carry them to the appropriate department. Raymond said some of this project could have been included in the agency’s budget, but not the tablets and enhanced WiFi.

“What we’re trying to do from an efficiency standpoint is give corrections officers the opportunity to remain focused on what they have to do day in and day out while maintaining the safety and security of the facility,” he said.

The Department of Safety, which has a 17 percent vacancy rate, is asking for $2 million to tackle a number of initiatives. 

That includes moving the paper-based registrations and renewals for approximately 2,100 commercial tractor-trailer carriers online. Similarly, it wants to automate the 1.5 million toll refund requests and 2,000 refunds it processes annually, a win for taxpayers who would be able to submit requests online and get payment faster. 

“These investments will reduce the time needed to process customer transactions and minimize the need for additional staffing to meet ongoing demands for services,” said spokesperson Vanessa Palange in an email.

Also on the list is improving the inventory management of license plates and renewal decals and automating orders for the more than 200 clerks handling automobile registrations across the state. 

“The pandemic led to changes in customer expectations with less emphasis on in-person transactions,” Palange said. “This change coupled with workforce shortages inspired the technology-based efficiency projects that are being funded through the American Rescue Plan Act.”

With $3.8 million, the Department of Revenue Administration says it can buy a new high-speed scanner to process paper tax forms and payments up to 66 percent faster and reduce a lot of the manual data entry currently required. The department is also hoping to upgrade the system taxpayers and others use to upload documents. 

The department said in its request to lawmakers that it promoted entry-level workers who had done manual data entry and have struggled to fill their positions. 

The Department of Transportation, which is down 371 people, 187 of them in highway maintenance, wants $3.5 million to make its winter operations more efficient. Its request includes new technology to map better plow routes, saving time and money; a new statewide system to more quickly process hundreds of driveway and excavation permit requests; and tablets to allow staff in the field to more efficiently share data with the department. The permitting system alone is a $2.9 million investment and wouldn’t have made it into the department’s budget, said spokesman Richard Arcand.

The New Hampshire Veterans Home is seeking $1.2 million to improve the effectiveness of its short-staffed teams with more reliable WiFi, electronic message boards for real-time staff communications, and technology that will allow team members, vendors, and providers to join meetings remotely. Staff sometimes must spend time looking for reliable internet to join remotely.

“This will assist us in communicating vital information instantaneously, including resident COVID cases or outbreak status information,” said spokeswoman Sarah Stanley in an email.

The home also plans to upgrade its network to allow residents and their family members to meet virtually when safety risks require them to isolate. 

“The complicated and unpredictable nature of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to remain a Threat,” Commandant Kimberly MacKay wrote. “The (veterans home) has come in and out of outbreak status four times since 2020. It is critical that (the home) update current operations, and better position our existing IT infrastructure to prepare for ongoing COVID-19 as well as future pandemics.”

Stanley said it’s not an investment the veterans home would have put in its budget request.

“Grant funding is a good fit for one-time investments such as this because investments are made infrequently and are frankly less predictable than annual operating costs,” Stanley said. “It also is directly tied to issues identified during the pandemic, and these investments will better prepare us for future ones as well as enable us to better live in our current one as we (hopefully) come out of it stronger and better serve our veterans.”

This story was written by Annmarie Timmins, a reporter for the New Hampshire Bulletin, where this story first appeared.

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