States, Cities Begin to Order Workers Back to the Office

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson delivers the State of the State address Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021, in Jefferson City, Mo.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson delivers the State of the State address Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021, in Jefferson City, Mo. AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

The ACLU is challenging a directive from South Carolina’s governor that requires state employees to return to in-person work. Other state and local orders are under fire as well.

In a week, Missouri’s state-employed workers will be expected to physically return to the office.

As more people are vaccinated and coronavirus infections drop, Missouri workers are among the state and local government employees being directed to disconnect from Zoom and return to in-person work.

But across-the-board mandates create a conundrum for employees who have health concerns or may still lack access to child care, according to legal experts. In South Carolina, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of state employees to challenge a similar return-to-work directive Gov. Henry McMaster issued in March.

In Missouri, Gov. Mike Parson’s directive will impact about 10,600 state employees who have continued to work remotely during the pandemic. Another 22,400 employees were already working on site, according to the state’s Office of Administration.

In an announcement of the change, Parson cited the widespread availability of Covid-19 vaccines and low virus transmissions across the state.

“As public servants in state government, it is important that we maintain a front-facing presence for those we serve, and it’s time we take this step towards normalcy for ourselves and the people of Missouri,” he said in a statement.

Employees will be expected to return to their pre-Covid work schedules and settings on May 17, said the governor’s spokeswoman Kelli Jones. No exceptions will be made regardless of individual circumstances, she said.

Employees across Missouri have expressed dismay over the order, which appeared to contradict some agency plans to return to the office at a slower pace and only gave employees two-weeks notice. 

Cities and states across the country are beginning to implement similar orders in an effort to return to pre-pandemic life.

McMaster issued an order March 5 that directed “all state agencies to immediately expedite the transition back to normal operations.” The ACLU contends that the governor’s order “is contrary to the safety, security, and welfare of the State” and imposes unlawful burdens on nonessential employees. 

While most of New York City’s more than 300,000-person municipal workforce has been on the job in-person during the course of the pandemic, the remaining 80,000 workers began returning to the office last week.

Henry Garrido, executive director of the city’s municipal workers union, criticized the timing of the decision to send remaining employees back into the office, noting that about 34% of the city’s workforce is fully vaccinated.

“The city should focus on bringing that number up before bringing everyone back to work gradually,” Garrido said.

But unlike in Missouri or South Carolina, New York City still has a mask mandate for areas where social distancing is not possible. Employees are also coming back on staggered schedules that allow them to work remotely some of the time.   

It is critical that policy makers include this sort of flexibility in their return-to-the-office policies, said Galen Sherwin, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU Women’s Rights Project who is involved in the South Carolina lawsuit.

“A blanket statement that people return in person is not legally sound,” she said.

The problem, Sherwin said, “is not a requirement that people return physically in some form.” Rather the key thing for policy makers to consider is whether adequate supports are in place to allow people to continue to work remotely if they have a compelling health reason or do not have child care access like they did before the pandemic.

Pregnant women are at a higher risk for severe illness from Covid-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, while experts do not believe that the Covid-19 vaccines pose a risk to pregnant women, the CDC notes that there is limited scientific data on the safety of receiving a vaccine while pregnant.

As a result, some pregnant or breastfeeding women may want to wait to be vaccinated, Sherwin said. Those workers would be put at risk by returning to the office if state or local governments fail to make exemptions for them, she said, describing one such example.

Working parents may also still face difficulties obtaining child care. While many school districts have reopened for at least some in-person learning, not all students are back in the classroom every day and child care facilities may not be at full capacity.

“Policy makers at all levels of government that are ordering people as a blanket matter to return in person are going to pose serious problems for those individuals,” Sherwin said.

She expects in the coming months that more state and local governments will begin requiring employees to return to the office. During the course of the pandemic, many local government officials have sought to evaluate the equity of their policies, and decisions about returning to normal life should be evaluated the same way, Sherwin said.

“They should be viewing the issue from an equity lens,” she said. “To think about how any return mandate will impact women, caregivers and people with disabilities in particular.”

Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.

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