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About 40 workers in the Secretary of State's Office are expected to return to the Jefferson City office Monday, as Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft said he's trying to get people back to work while also keeping them safe.
"We need to open this country up, but we need to do it in a safe manner," doing requisite measures, Ashcroft said. "We're cracking open the door to start that process."
For about the past 2 weeks amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Ashcroft said, a bare minimum staff numbering 20-25 has been physically at work — including people who work in business services and securities and election staff on hand for candidate filings.
"We've said, 'OK, is there a way we can safely start to step this up?'" Ashcroft said of making sure the office's business can be done effectively.
When Gov. Mike Parson recently signed an executive order to temporarily allow for electronic notary services — something new for the state, as legislation about it has not been passed — Ashcroft said the business services office got a lot of phone calls about it, and "We need to have people to answer the phones."
"We want to have a live person answer your call when you call," he said.
For now, the plan for Monday is to have about 60 people at the office — with the people returning from working remotely being those who have enclosed offices they can work in with doors closed.
In previous months, the office would have had 185 employees in it, Ashcroft said.
He confirmed details of an internal office email that outlined hygiene and social distancing measures, including water fountains will remain shut off, the lunch room has been rearranged to limit the number of people in it at a time, and staff are being encouraged — but not required — to wear a mask.
The email from Trish Vincent, the office's chief of staff, stated that, among other measures, employees would be expected at the end of each day to close their doors and put their trash cans outside because cleaning crews would not otherwise open a door to enter.
Lunch room tables are now at least 6 feet apart, with only one chair at each table, according to the email.
"I'll be wearing a mask starting Monday at work," Ashcroft said — to set a good example — adding there are various disinfectants available for people to use in their offices.
Missouri is under a statewide stay-at-home order that took effect Monday.
Per the order, all state office buildings are closed to the public, though essential state functions continue.
In addition to what it requires of individuals, the order also requires businesses with non-essential workers to observe social distancing, and even grocery stores must limit the number of people inside at a time and keep customers at least 6 feet apart when in line.
Parson said Friday he's letting statewide elected officials act within their own judgment on who is essential for their offices.
"Every elected official in the state of Missouri has their own responsibilities, what they consider essential or what's not essential for their own offices. What I have to worry about is the 50,000 state employees that fall under my umbrella and my directors," Parson said, when asked whether he supports state leaders or department directors at this time deciding to bring some staff back into offices.
"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, and they have every right to make those choices," Parson said.
He said it "most certainly will" be a unified approach when state workers are asked to come back. "For state employees, we'll have a united front, when we decide to bring employees back," when it's safe, he said.
"Right now, we feel like the safest place for our department heads and our people who work for state government is at home," working remotely, Parson added.
Office of Administration spokesman Chris Moreland said Thursday, "The state is requiring only essential personnel that must be physically present in a state office building to do their job. Otherwise, staff is working remotely."
Moreland added, "Approximately one-third of the state work force is working remotely. We are encouraging social distancing for those staff that have to come into state facilities."
Further guidance for state workers is available at oa.mo.gov/personnel/state-team-member-resources.
"The vast majority of what I've heard back is people want to get back to work," Ashcroft said of his office's staff. Human resources will work with people who have specific concerns, he added.
He said Monday will represent a first phase of getting people back into the office, but there is no plan for a second phase, yet.
The internal office email noted the plan to bring back workers is through May 1: "The time will come that we all will need to be back to work, and we are planning on how to do that safely."
The email noted division directors would contact any staff who may later be rotated in and out of areas where social distancing is not possible, such as in cubicles.
As elsewhere, workers who are sick or have a fever are not to come to work and asked to call their supervisors.