SC state employees gearing up for return to in-person work, some can seek exemptions

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SC state employees gearing up for return to in-person work, some can seek exemptions

COLUMBIA — Thousands of state employees will return to their offices over the coming days on orders from Gov. Henry McMaster but with each agency submitting its own re-entry plan, the journey back is going to be gradual.

All plans are expected to win approval through the state Department of Administration by March 12, a week after McMaster ordered all state agency leaders to submit a plan to “expeditiously return” all employees to their workplace full time.

His order did not set a deadline.

Agencies have asked for one to three weeks of additional time to modify work spaces, obtain personal protective equipment, and give employees time to make child care arrangements for their children, Department of Administration spokeswoman Kelly Coakley said.

Some workers can seek a delay in returning to the office if they need to stay home for child care or have a high health risk, either for themselves or someone they live with, Coakley said.

McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes said the time has come for government workers to get back on the job as COVID-19 vaccines become more widely available.

“Millions of South Carolinians have been going to work every single day since the onset, and the governor fundamentally believes it’s time for agencies to start facilitating the return of government employees.”

But with some 60,000 workers spread across dozens of agencies — from the handful who comprise the Governor’s Mansion grounds crew to the roughly 6,500 employed throughout the University of South Carolina’s system, ensuring safe returns for all is an arduous process, state officials said.

It’s unclear how many of those still work from home, nearly a year after offices closed. State employees began returning last May. The first wave included managers, call center employees and others who can’t easily do their jobs at home, Administration Director Marcia Adams said at the time.

For those ordered to return soon, “agencies have been given flexibility to work with employees who have a disability that places him/her at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19 by allowing them to continue to work remotely, if their job duties can be performed remotely, until they have had an opportunity to be vaccinated,” Coakley said.

Administrators at USC, which has the largest number of state workers, plan to be back to nearly full strength within a month.

By March 21, officials anticipate that 65 percent of all their employees will be back on campuses system wide, with 98 percent back by April 17. The phase-in model is to accommodate employees who are working remotely because of childcare responsibilities and those at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 due to underlying conditions.

Heather Woolwine, a spokeswoman for the Medical University of South Carolina, said MUSC will use a phased approach with some employees returning to campus on March 15. Everyone will be working on site by April 30. Parking needs, social distancing, bus schedules and staggered work hours were all considered in shaping the plan, she said.

McMaster, who on March 11 visited the Continental Tire plant in Sumter to see a vaccine clinic for workers, noted their ability to stay on the job through the pandemic.

“We never closed down like they did in other states,” he told reporters after his tour “This place was able to go right on going, keep everybody working.”

Like employees of state and local governments, manufacturing workers were among the 2.7 million South Carolinians who became eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine starting March 8.

McMaster said the factory is an example of why those workers were included in Phase 1B, because “in these places, you have a lot of people who touch the same things in close proximity to one another.”

Nearly 8,700 South Carolinians have died with COVID-19 over the past year, with 94 percent of them ages 55 and older, according to DHEC data.

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