COLUMBIA — One out of four state agencies — including several of South Carolina’s largest — will have workers back to their job sites full-time a little more than a week after an order from Gov. Henry McMaster.
Despite concerns expressed on social media by some state government employees, 26 agencies will either begin or have resumed in-person operations by March 15.
They include the University of South Carolina and the state Departments of Social Services, Mental Health, Corrections and Natural Resources. They cover close to 20,000 employees or more than one-quarter of all state workers.
Employees at the state’s other 77 agencies and colleges must return to work by April 5, according to the state Department of Administration.
McMaster told agency heads on March 5 when he issued a new executive order to draft re-entry plans to get workers back onto job sites “expeditiously” but didn’t give a deadline. The governor made the call to have state workers return as COVID-19 vaccines become more widely available and four of the five South Carolinians are eligible to get doses.
The 77 agencies not coming back next week sought extensions to make modifications to workspaces, such as installing barriers, obtain personal protective equipment and provide time for employees to make arrangements for dependent care, Department of Administration spokeswoman Kelly Coakley said.
Individual employees at agencies can ask to continue to work from home if they have dependent care issues or are at high-risk if they become infected with COVID-19 or live with someone who is at high risk.
Coakley did not provide a complete list of which agencies are returning to in-person work next week and which ones are taking more time.
Most state employees were already back at work as of March 11, according to the Department of Administration.
About 43,000 employees on the state’s payroll had reported to their workplaces, while 24,300 are still doing their jobs remotely. An additional 6,548 employees were either on leave or not scheduled to work.
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, state Administration Director Marcia Adams said at the time.
Last month, agency heads told lawmakers that they needed some employees to remain on the job in-person because of the nature of their work, such as road repair crews.
“Some of our work tasks aren’t conducive to tele-work. You can’t patch a pothole working from home,” S.C. Department of Transportation chief Christy Hall told a House Ways and Means subcommittee in February as it considered a bill that would have given vaccine priority to K-12 employees.
Hall told The Post and Courier March 12 that 98 percent of her staff are already back at the workplace.
Bryan Stirling, who heads the S.C. Department of Corrections, told The Post and Courier on March 12 that his agency had to get creative as 21 institutions require round-the-clock staffing by officers.
At certain points over the past year, National Guard troops helped with medical checks for quarantined inmates or with meal preparation. Officials also set up virtual classrooms and schedules for ongoing educational programs within state prisons.
Some agencies began asking lawmakers in January to make it easier for their employees to get shots.
As of Feb. 16, 550 positive cases of COVID-19 were logged among the Department of Social Service’s 4,200 workers, agency communications director Connelly-Anne Ragley told lawmakers.
“We realize that front line child welfare and protective workers that are going into nursing homes and assisted living centers are essential public workers that have continued to do their work throughout the pandemic,” she said.
A DSS spokeswoman said 2,473 workers were already back on the job as of March 12, and 932 were functioning remotely.
Follow Adam Benson on Twitter @AdamNewshound12.