As of 11 a.m. Monday, March 16, eight Maine residents have been confirmed positive and nine others are presumed positive for the coronavirus, according to the state. Click here for the latest coronavirus news, which the BDN has made free for the public. You can support this mission by purchasing a digital subscription.
AUGUSTA, Maine — The union representing more than 12,000 Maine state employees called on the governor to end nonessential government services because of the coronavirus outbreak on Monday, while the state has told workers it is still “considering all options.”
Maine Service Employees Association President Dean Staffieri said in a Monday statement that the union asked Gov. Janet Mills to immediately release nonessential employees, saying that the move was necessary to protect state workers and reduce the likelihood of transmission among first responders and public health workers.
A spokesperson for Mills said the Democratic governor was “considering all options with respect to [state] government staffing,” adding that she was taking input from the Maine CDC and members of a state coronavirus response team.
Mills announced last Thursday that she was temporarily suspending all nonessential out-of-state travel by state employees. When declaring a state of emergency on Sunday, she said that she was “reviewing leave policies and telecommuting options.”
As of Monday, there are 17 likely cases of coronavirus in Maine, according to the state Centers for Disease Control. The state of New York has ordered nonessential state workers to stay home, while several other states, including Vermont, New Mexico, North Carolina and Ohio, have ordered state employees to work from home if possible.
In an email to state employees on Monday, Department of Financial and Administrative Services commissioner Kirsten Figueroa said the agency was “considering alternate work locations and/or schedules, telework and leave time options” in order to limit potential exposure of the virus. She also said that agency heads were considering how alternative work locations could support social distancing.
Staffieri said the union was encouraged by the administration’s stated intent of making sick leave more flexible and preparation for social distancing. But he also called those measures “insufficient to protect the safety of our members and the public,” saying that the state should prepare all possible positions for teleworking and allow staff to work from home if they can.
“We believe this is necessary to protect the health and safety not just of all state workers, their families and the general public but also to reduce the likelihood of Maine’s first responders, public health workers and other emergency responders becoming exposed to COVID-19,” Staffieri said.
Kyle Hadyniak, spokesperson for DAFS, said normal state government operations would not conflict with Mills’ state of emergency declaration, which bans events with more than 50 people, because staff meetings typically do not include that many people. He said the agency had been monitoring the coronavirus situation for weeks and keeping employees informed through emails and fliers encouraging employees to wash their hands frequently and avoid handshakes.
“Employees are still encouraged to come into work if healthy,” Hadyniak said.
Hadyniak added that about 70 percent of state employees have state-issued laptops, which would make it easier for them to work remotely, though he said remote work would be more difficult for departments that work directly with citizens or rely on physical records.
The state employees’ policy and practices manual states that the “essential services” must be maintained in all instances, but non-essential employees are allowed to be released in an emergency at the governor’s discretion.
A separate Maine statute pertaining to overtime laws describes “essential employees” as providing “services that are basic or indispensable and are provided to the public as a whole, including, but not limited to, utility service, snowplowing, road maintenance and telecommunications service.”