July 16, 2021
Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon recently released Proposals for the Future: Wyoming’s guide to Survive, Drive and Thrive, outlining the COVID-19 recovery for our state. Wyoming Department of Workforce Services Director Robin Sessions Cooley, Wyoming Department of Family Services (DFS) Director Korin Schmidt, and Wyoming County Commissioners Association President/Converse County Commissioner Jim Willox were all members of the Governor’s “Strike Team” who authored the report.
Last night, they joined ESPC’s People’s Review: Live! to further explain and hit the highlights of the plan they helped create. Mental health, child care, economic development and sustainability of programs were all featured in the report and highlighted by our panelists. Funding to implement the outcomes of this plan will come from federal recovery dollars contained in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and American Rescue Plan (ARP).
Big takeaways from the discussion?
All realize no single action in the plan is going to be the silver bullet that cures all problems the state has right now and will face in the future. Commissioner Willox equates the report’s outcomes to a hitting bunch of bunt singles in baseball rather than trying to hit a home run.
He added, “Creating jobs is really a process, not an event. We are going to have to chip away at this.”
Appropriate and affordable childcare and its relationship to workforce shortages across the state are a focus of Director Cooley’s. She said she hasn’t seen data to show people aren’t returning to work because of increased incentives in the Wyoming Unemployment program. She instead sees how a lack of childcare is a serious factor when it comes to people and their employment decisions.
“What we are hearing from those on unemployment is that they have to make a decision: Is there quality, affordable childcare out there for their kids?”
Most of Wyoming has a serious shortage of quality, affordable childcare.
Fortunately, the panelists recognized that childcare is essential infrastructure for Wyoming’s future. They talked about how it aligns with education and supports a thriving workforce and is an essential element in attracting and retaining working families to the Equality State–the #1 goal of the plan. Commissioner Willox suggested that co-locating childcare with community colleges is an important way to develop the infrastructure we need to strengthen our workforce.
Broadband access is also a hot topic in Wyoming right now. In addition to this group, at least two other government task forces are focused in this area. Broadband allows societal changes that make bandwidth and accessibility incredibly important. Zoom meetings are now an everyday occurrence for many of us, working from home is becoming much more prevalent and telemedicine is here to stay. All of these require the affordable and quality broadband the plan outlines.
Director Schmidt used this technology during the pandemic.. DFS child welfare visits were done through zoom, rather than face-to-face. While she admits these are not as good as those done by her staff when in person, it was a great way to handle them in emergencies. She went on to explain the downsides to using technology and cited the “Last Mile” principle as an example. Not unlike telephone services in the past, providing quality internet to farms and ranches, miles from population centers is logistically difficult and the cost increases exponentially. Advances in technology are lowering some of these costs and making logistics easier, so there is optimism in this area.
For Director Cooley the lack of reliable internet service hit home when the COVID-19 lockdown went into effect. “Wyoming Workforce Services offices statewide stayed open to the public because people in our communities needed access to the internet to sign up for Wyoming Unemployment. They either did not have internet at home, or it was not reliable enough to fill out an application,” she explained.
All of the panelists recognize the relationship between mental health and a thriving workforce, acknowledging that the ability to go back to school, garner employment and putting yourself in position for promotions were all reliant on addressing mental health needs. Schmidt reminded us that this becomes even more difficult as cuts to state programs have been especially difficult for our community mental health centers.
Sustainability of programs created or changed as a result of the plan rounded out the discussion. Commissioner Willox summed this up:
“It’s easy to spend one-time money and we had a chunk of that and it was critical to getting through the toughest times in the pandemic. We can stand up a new program. That is easy. How do we sustain it when the ARP funding disappears?”
ESPC will continue to track the spending of these dollars and the work of this group in our commitment to a transparent government.