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Bounce Back Better: Early Furloughs Help Kansas Turnpike Deliver Faster Recovery

By: 
Bill Cramer

While we are in the midst of our Virtual 88th Annual Meeting, I spoke with Steve Hewitt, Executive Director of the Kansas Turnpike Authority (KTA), as part of IBTTA’s Bounce Back Better Series. Steve talks about the tough decisions his agency had to make to keep finances and programs on track in the wake of the pandemic.

 

What’s one thing your authority has done, or plans to do, to bounce back better after the pandemic?

SH: KTA made the difficult decision to furlough employees in mid-April when traffic decreased by more than 60% due to the pandemic and widespread stay-at-home orders. Furloughing allowed KTA to save on salaries, while employees took advantage of the additional stimulus funds provided by the CARES Act, in most cases netting the employee the same amount of income. Because KTA furloughed within a month of seeing traffic and revenue impacts, the decision kept KTA in a position of financial and operational strength. Workload was also decreased during this time, so rather than pay employees to do less work (collecting cash tolls or answering customer calls), KTA saved money on compensation, as one of the steps we took to fill the revenue gap created by the pandemic.

Because KTA’s toll system requires an entry point and an exit point to calculate the price of a toll, the agency could not convert immediately to all-electronic tolling as some others have done. KTA’s conversion requires on-road engineering and technology changes, as well as back-office changes. KTA has started its conversion to cashless tolling and we believe maintaining our financial and operational strength by making tough staffing decisions now will preserve the conversion schedule and deliver the project on time for our customers.

Would you have done the same thing, or done it so quickly, if not for the pandemic? Why or why not?

SH: Yes, we would make the same decision if we were faced with a similar situation. Furloughing early on allowed us to save operational costs when operational needs were decreased, and we believe recovery will be faster for KTA because of that. As stated above, we want to maintain our schedule of converting to cashless tolling in 2024, and we believe making tough decisions through the pandemic will help us better serve customers in the future.

What’s unique or innovative about the project?

SH: Many organizations put off making these difficult decisions because no leader wants to negatively impact the employees who have given so much to move the organization forward. However, we are working with other organizations that delayed that decision. Now, the workload (traffic, calls, projects) is returning, and they are faced with furloughing because their finances dictate it.

Furloughing in April, May and June also allowed KTA to maintain social distancing between employees. We split our staff into two different groups and worked the groups on alternating weeks to maintain continuity of operations. In the event an employee tested positive, this limited the exposure of other employees. To date, despite Kansas’ current status as a hotspot in the U.S., KTA has only had three employees test positive. 

Is there anything you’d like to add?

SH: KTA has approximately 360 employees working in administration, manual toll collection, customer service, engineering and maintenance. We also pay the salaries of all the Kansas Highway Patrol Troop G personnel assigned to the Turnpike. KTA transitioned many administrative employees into a work-from-home environment in mid-March. However, toll collection, maintenance, engineering and customer service employees reported to work at KTA facilities.

In the wake of the pandemic experience, KTA is more committed to modernization than ever. It’s been a major focus for the past five years, beginning in earnest with the 2015 Long-Term Needs Study. Now, the agency has embraced new work-from-home scenarios that will continue well after the virus subsides. We have learned a lot about managing a remote workforce while ensuring business continuity, and now we are looking at work-from-home as a way to attract new talent and offer employees a better way to balance work and home. What seemed like a challenge prior to March now looks like an opportunity, and we believe it’s a win-win scenario.

Click here for IBTTA’s COVID-19 information and response page.

Newsletter publish date: 
Tuesday, September 15, 2020 - 07:45

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