Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft is asking about 40 employees who have their own offices to return to work on Monday, one week after a statewide stay-at-home order was issued by Gov. Mike Parson.
In an email obtained by St. Louis Public Radio, Trish Vincent, executive deputy secretary of state, said Thursday that “those who have offices should return to work” next week “unless otherwise directed.” The email goes on to suggest employees use the handicap entrance and activate the button that opens the door with their elbows to enter the office building.
Parson’s stay-at-home order closes all state buildings for public use but exempts employees deemed “essential.”
“The stay-at-home order does not apply to all government business,” Ashcroft said Friday. “We shut down our building, but we shut it down to public access. We have been working every business day.”
Ashcroft said that about 20 employees are already working in the Jefferson City building on a daily basis and that roughly 40 more are being asked to return. He said normally there are about 180 employees in the office.
Some employees are still working from home, and Ashcroft said some are being asked to refrain from coming into work due to health concerns.
“If we can bring people back safely, which is what we’re doing in stage one, then we need to bring people back to make sure we’re getting the work done that I swore an oath to when I was inaugurated,” Ashcroft said.
In his press briefing on Friday, Parson said the decision on bringing employees back to work, and when, should be left up to each elected official.
"What I have to worry about is the 50,000 state employees that fall under my umbrella and my directors," he said. "Each elected official has the ability to make their own decisions when they feel like it's safe for those employees to come back, and I will allow them to make those choices."
According to the memo, all employees who have their own office are expected to return to work. They are told to work with their office door closed and are encouraged to follow social distancing guidelines.
“Washing your hands, using hand sanitizer, sanitary wipes or spray is each employee's responsibility in their area,” the email states.
Ashcroft cited answering phone calls, taking security reports and access to documents and data needed to complete work that may be in an employee’s office as among the “various reasons” he’s asking employees to return.
Elections fall under his office. On Thursday, Parson said he does not support a vote-by-mail approach. Ashcroft did not say whether he backed the idea but did say he doesn’t have the authority to make that decision.
.@GovParsonMO says he will not support vote-by-mail effort. He says current system is a good one and there shouldn't be changes "out of fear." MO Democratic SOS candidate @yinka_faleti has been calling on governor to offer VBM amid spread of #COVID19— Jaclyn Driscoll (@DriscollNPR) April 9, 2020
He said his office is creating a “game plan” for elections in June, August and November, when the Missouri gubernatorial and presidential elections are held. Some health experts suggest there may be a second surge of the virus around then.
After Parson announced on Thursday that schools are closed for the rest of the year, Ashcroft said his office is now planning to use schools as polling places. The goal is to include in-person, curbside and possibly even drive-thru voting.
Ashcroft said he will be wearing a homemade mask in the office. He said he's encouraging their use but is not requiring employees to wear one, and his office is not supplying masks.
His office has continued to pay employees who have been sent home due to the coronavirus. “But now that we’ve found a way for people to do it, we feel they should start to return,” he said.
If employees develop symptoms or have a fever, Ashcroft said they are asked to stay home. He said paid or sick leave will be handled on a case-by-case basis. As stated in the email, “PLEASE, if you are sick or running a temperature DO NOT COME TO WORK and call your supervisor!!!!”
Ashcroft said employees will be brought back in phases, with the first phase beginning on Monday. He said he is unsure when the next phase will start, but the staff memo states, “this is the plan through Friday, May 1.”
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for us to make a decision about phase two until we go through phase one,” Ashcroft said. “I don’t want to rush this, because I think if we rush it, we do put my employees at risk.”