The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way Berks County does business.
As the county begins to slowly reopen it has had to adapt to a new normal. That means many of the changes put in place earlier will remain.
It also means a handful of county workers won't be returning.
The commissioners announced Thursday, July 30, at their weekly meeting that the positions of eight employees will be eliminated as a result of a reduced level of operations and curtailed personnel needs due to the public health crisis.
"This has been dealt with very, very carefully," said commissioners Chairman Christian Y. Leinbach. "The individuals who are losing their jobs know that this is through no fault of their own. It happens to be that they are in departments where there just isn't enough work."
Leinbach said the county will work with those impacted by these cuts about what other opportunities are available and will offer a severance package for those who meet certain qualifications.
"We worked to take care of these folks as best as we possibly could," he said.
County officials announced in April that about 200 county workers would initially be furloughed, lasting until the coronavirus pandemic lifted and economic conditions improved. That number rose to more than 300 in the weeks that followed.
Those who were furloughed were eligible for unemployment benefits and retained health insurance paid for by the county.
Leinbach said most of those workers have been brought back as the workload increased over the last several months. He said there are still a few dozen workers who have not returned but are expected to be recalled by the end of August.
Commissioner Kevin S. Barnhardt pointed out that county government is reliant on tax revenue to pay for the services it provides as well as the salaries of those who provide those services. He said the board has been working with department leaders and row officers to find ways to survive the economic downturn caused by the pandemic while continuing to offer essential services.
"I think we did an extremely critical job of supporting our employees who were put on a furlough and as business started to ramp back up we brought back a significant number of people into the building and we still have a fair amount of people working from home," he said. "While we don't save any money by having people work from home, it does provide a safer environment in some of our smaller departments where social distancing may not be possible."
Barnhardt said as the county began to increase operations it became clear that some positions could be eliminated through automation. For example, he said the register of wills office has made all its services available online.
And, he stressed, the county is still limiting access to facilities. He encouraged people to continue to call ahead to make an appointment to see if their business can be conducted remotely in an effort to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus as offices operate with a reduced staff onsite.
The board also:
• Agreed to execute a letter of support for a grant application to the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development to conduct a feasibility study of the Reading to Hamburg gap in the Schuylkill River Trail and commit $7,500 as a match for the grant.
• Hired NAI Keystone Commercial & Industrial to provide professional services in determining whether the county should lease, purchase or construct a facility to house election equipment at a cost not to exceed $10,000.