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Some Cuyahoga County Employees Say Working From Home Increased Performance

Cuyahoga Job and Family Services Eligibility Specialist Desiree Colasent is able to let her dog out while she's at work and play with him on her lunch break, which she wouldn't be able to do if she went into the office. [Lisa Ryan / Ideastream Public Media]
Cuyahoga Job and Family Services Eligibility Specialist Desiree Colasent is able to let her dog out while she's at work and play with him on her lunch break, which she wouldn't be able to do if she went into the office. [Lisa Ryan / Ideastream Public Media]

Like many Americans, Desiree Colasent got a dog during the pandemic while she was working from home.

Colasent is an eligibility specialist for Cuyahoga Job and Family Services, which means she helps people who are applying for federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

SNAP benefits allow low-income families to pay for groceries so they don't go hungry, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers SNAP benefits. This government program was especially important during the pandemic when people lost their jobs or saw their hours cut. And with children at home, going to school remotely, many families also saw their food budgets go up, as kids weren't receiving school lunches, USDA officials said. 

Due to this financial strain, SNAP applications skyrocketed during the pandemic and so did Colasent's workload. 

Privacy is an important part of Colasent's job, and working from home helped increase privacy for clients, she said. [Lisa Ryan / Ideastream Public Media]

“COVID really showed how many people were in need. A lot of people, if they lose their job, they can’t pay their rent for the next month. A lot of us live paycheck to paycheck,” Colasent said. “There’s such a bad rap for having food assistance or medical assistance, but these benefits are here for this reason.”

As applications went up, so did the productivity of the people who were busy processing the applications, largely from home. The percent of applications approved in a timely manner increased, according to data from Cuyahoga Job and Family Services.

This graph shows the increase in applications at the beginning of the pandemic. [Cuyahoga County Job and Family Services]

In February 2020, Cuyahoga Job and Family Services saw about 6,000 applications. By April of 2020, that number shot up to nearly 14,000 applications. 

Applications did go down after that, but Kevin Gowan, the director at Cuyahoga County Job and Family Services, said the number of people who have continued using SNAP benefits has stayed at an increased level throughout the pandemic. 

"Prior to the pandemic starting, we had about 200,000, probably less than 200,000 people on SNAP, and it's now 220,000, and in the height, or the beginning of the pandemic, it was as high as 235,000 people," Gowan said. 

Before the pandemic, employees weren't hitting the goal of approving 95 percent of applications within 30 days. In January of 2020, only about 83 percent of applications were approved in that time frame. But just a few months later, in the summer of 2020, nearly all the applications were approved in 30 days. 

This graph shows the increased amount of applications approved within 30 days. [Cuyahoga County Job and Family Services]

“There were people in need, and it was during a pandemic, and we knocked those out of the park,” Colasent said. “We did a great job making sure that the timeliness was met, and people were really happy to be able to get those benefits as soon as they could.”

Right now, Cuyahoga Job and Family Services has a grant that will continue to allow employees to work from home until February. But Colasent hopes to continue working from home, as she finds herself being more productive.

She isn't alone. Cuyahoga Job and Family Services Director Kevin Gowan said they sent a survey to employees, and the majority of respondents wanted to continue working from home.

“We asked them at the beginning of the pandemic, ‘Are you willing to work from home?’ And they overwhelmingly said yes. We asked them if they want to continue in this environment, and so far, they have said yes, so yes, people want to work from home,” Gowan said.

There Are Trade-Offs When Working From Home

But working from home wasn’t without its challenges.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, my son was four at the time, he had to stay home with me. It was challenging to mother and to work and make sure I’m doing well and excelling at work still," Colasent said. "In actuality, talking to clients and them hearing children’s laughter in the background, it really connects you with the clients, because they know that you’re a mother, they know that you have to work from home too. It puts you on a different level with the clients and they understand that you understand what they’re going through.”

But now, Colasent has seen the benefits of working from home. She feels more efficient than when she was in the office. 

“There’s so many less distractions at home. Just going to the bathroom took at least 10 minutes in the office, whereas my bathroom’s 10 feet from here," Colasent said.

She’s saved time and money from not having to commute.

“Not having to pay for parking, for the gas to get downtown, I would have had to get more oil changes, like my car is a lease and I don’t use as many miles. I have more money to, I feel like, be a better mom on the weekends. We go to the zoo more, we go to the aquarium more, there’s so many things around Cleveland that now we have money for because I’m not wasting it getting to work," Colasent said. 

Her commute was about 45 minutes to an hour to drive from Berea to downtown Cleveland during rush hour.

“So I’m saving time of my life and I’m more involved in my son, we are practicing letters and math, and I’m able to do more because as soon as I sign out of my computer I can focus on him, and I’m losing that hour of commute," she said.

It’s a trade-off that many people working from home have had. Not going into the office does mean less social interaction, but it also means more time for the people and things you love outside of the office, and—for the employees at Cuyahoga Job and Family Services—it means less distractions and more productivity at work. There are still some people in the office to help clients who may need to visit in person, Gowan said, and the in-office staff also print things to mail out. 

Making sure employees maintained client privacy was a priority when Cuyahoga Job and Family Services first sent people home at the beginning of the pandemic, Gowan said.

"They can't print while they're at home because we don't want them printing up client information while at home, to keep that information confidential," he said. 

No one is at home with Colasent now, as her husband works out of the house and her child is in school now. So it’s just her and the dog all day, but protecting client privacy is still a priority.

“I do a new note every call, just for privacy reasons. I’ll type the notes for the case, then I’ll close that out. If I walk away from my computer, I do lock it. It’s like muscle memory. When I was in the office, you just close it, it’s just normal.

Loki the dog has a bell he can ring when he needs to go outside. [Lisa Ryan / Ideastream Public Media]

And for Colasent's dog, it means he can go out in their backyard whenever he wants, and spend time with her while she's working.

“He doesn’t have to be in a cage all day. He’s really living the life, with me being at home,” she said.

lisa.ryan@ideastream.org | 216-916-6158