HELENA — As new Covid-19 infections surge in the most of the state’s urban counties, the Gianforte administration continued with its plan to bring all remotely working state employees back to the office this week.
Starting Tuesday, all state employees had to be at their “pre-Covid 19 work sites,” rather than working at home – unless they have a special exemption.
The administration told MTN News that about 3,500 executive branch workers, out of 11,100 under the purview of the governor, were expected to return to the office this week. About 7,600 already have returned, as part of a phased-in approach that began earlier this summer.
Amanda Curtis, president of the Montana Federation of State Employees, said Wednesday the timeline for returning to work made sense six weeks ago – but not any more, with the increased outbreak of new Covid-19 infections.
She called the back-to-work order an “arbitrary political deadline.”
“Montana’s public employees are being put at risk for no good reason and may have to use personal, sick or unpaid leave if they are quarantined for a work exposure,” she said. “This is the worst-case example of public administration in a health crisis.”
The Gianforte administration said state employees can use paid Covid leave “until further notice,” including federally funded leave that has not been exhausted.
The state reported 1,041 new Covid-19 cases Wednesday, the highest daily total since early last December. The total of active cases (6,680) and hospitalizations of Covid-19-infected patients (301) also are at their highest levels since December.
The Gianforte administration this spring unveiled a three-stage process of bringing state employees back to the office. Its directive does not apply to employees of the Legislature, the Justice Department, or other agencies under other statewide elected officials.
It does apply to all employees under the governor’s purview, including supervisors and state agency directors, the administration said.
MTN News inquired specifically about working arrangements for two agency directors who have homes in cities outside Helena – Commerce Director Scott Osterman, who has a home in Flathead County, and Labor Commissioner Laurie Esau, who has a home in Missoula.
The administration said Osterman works primarily out of his office in Helena and a state office in Kalispell, but that he also spends significant time on the road, working on business development across the state.
Esau spends most of her time working out of her Helena office, but does travel for meetings throughout the state, the administration said.
“The governor committed to changing how state government does business and he recruited and assembled a highly qualified team, many members of which have roots outside of Helena, to help lead Montana’s comeback,” spokeswoman Brooke Stroyke said.
While the state is legally barred from requiring employees to be vaccinated against Covid-19, the Gianforte administration “strongly recommends” that state workers get a vaccine.
The administration also is not requiring face-masks to be worn by state workers, except in some facilities in some circumstances, such as the state men’s and women’s prisons, State Hospital, or other institutions the house individuals under state care.