As Arkansans work to protect the health of their family and friends, juggle school and childcare needs, and face challenging household finances, the list of things to worry about during the COVID-19 public health emergency seems endless. In addition, at a time when we all have a lot of questions, many of the places we normally turn to find answers are different than usual.
This has been one of the greatest challenges for my office since March. My staff and I always prioritize helping Arkansans, and the last few months put those skills to the test as we worked through issues in a very different government landscape. Even when my entire staff was working remotely, we answered office phones and responded to emails so that people could find critical help and information.
Since the beginning of this crisis, we’ve fielded thousands of calls and emails regarding IRS issues, unemployment, federal help for small businesses and travel emergencies for Arkansans who found themselves trapped overseas when most of the world shut down. We were forced to find new ways to contact agencies and figure out who was working and what services were available.
In many ways, the pandemic is so different because of the way it impacts all of us at the same time. When we have a tornado or an ice storm, there are people in neighboring states who send trucks to fix the electric lines or help with emergency needs. The same is usually true for federal agencies. Normally when one location has a problem, work shifts to other places to make sure Americans can still get the services they rely on.
Because of the scope of this crisis, federal agencies are operating in different ways. For example, the National Personnel Records Center in Missouri is the first place to go to find military records. Its work requires searching through physical files and, due to the dangers with close contact working conditions right now, many of the employees are not allowed in the building. The same is true for many of our U.S. Embassies throughout the world. Conditions vary greatly in each country and many are operating in emergency status with little ability to handle routine requests for visas and passports. However, my office continues to talk to officials at these agencies and others to find help with emergencies.
Although some agencies are limited in their ability to respond right now, others were able to pivot quickly for remote work. Social Security Administration field offices remain closed to walk-in visitors, but customers can still request an appointment. Even with the dramatic shift to online operations, the agency did not slow down on providing services, whether initial applications or disability hearings.
Despite the enormous challenges facing these agencies and the dedicated federal employees who work for them, my office continues to inquire and try to find ways to solve problems. I hope Arkansans who run into a dead end with a federal government problem know that we are still here. Over the last few months, we have learned even more about how to get help, especially when it is a little harder to find.