South Carolina Back-to-Office Order Draws Suit Over Equality


An order by South Carolina to return state workers to their offices will disproportionately harm women, people with disabilities, caregivers and Black people who are already bearing the brunt of the pandemic, the American Civil Liberties Union said in a lawsuit challenging the plan.

Governor Henry McMaster exceeded his authority with the executive order, which requires state agencies to “immediately expedite” the return of non-essential state employees to in-person work, the ACLU said in a complaint filed Monday in state court in Columbia. The Republican governor’s order also scraps South Carolina’s mask mandate for state buildings, putting the health of workers at even greater risk, according to the complaint.

The March 5 order directed agencies to begin returning most workers by mid-March and to have them all in place by early April “regardless of their health or ability to find appropriate care coverage” for children, according to the suit.

“The governor’s order forces me to choose between protecting the safety of my family and a paycheck,” Deborah Mihal, an employee at the state-run College of Charleston and the lead plaintiff in the suit, said in a statement with the ACLU on Tuesday. “Since the beginning of this global pandemic over a year ago, my colleagues and I have been safely and effectively working remotely. There is no urgent need for us to return in person.”

‘Ridiculous’ Claim

McMaster has said the move was warranted by a decline in new Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations. Brian Symmes, a spokesman for the governor, said in a statement on Tuesday that agencies have been given flexibility to make necessary accommodations and time to implement safety measures.

“It’s ridiculous to think that requiring employees to go to work is discriminatory in any way,” Symmes said. “Employees were given weeks to make any necessary plans for a number of contingencies including childcare, and with 94% of South Carolina’s childcare facilities open for business, there should be no issue for anyone actively working to make those arrangements.”

The ACLU says the speedy return isn’t justified. On the day it was signed, South Carolina’s seven-day moving average for new cases was still 1,224 a day, according to the suit. By April 1, just under a third of state residents had received at least one dose of the vaccine, and less than a fifth were fully vaccinated, the ACLU said.

The case is Mihal v. McMaster, 2021CP4001599, Court of Common Pleas for the Fifth Judicial Circuit of South Carolina, County of Richland (Columbia).

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