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Our members are the local governments of Massachusetts and their elected and appointed leadership.
Municipal managers are navigating yet another COVID-19 course-correction as they develop and implement workplace policies in response to a new travel order issued by Gov. Charlie Baker.
Effective Aug. 1, people entering Massachusetts from states outside of New England, New York, New Jersey and Hawaii are instructed to fill out a Massachusetts Travel Form and quarantine for 14 days unless they can show negative results from a coronavirus test taken no more than 72 hours before entering the Commonwealth. The order applies to out-of-state visitors as well as Massachusetts residents returning to the state, and carries a $500 per day fine for violation.
“While the virus spread in our Commonwealth is much lower than at the height in April, other parts of our country have had outbreaks and explosions of COVID-19 cases,” Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said as she explained the new travel restrictions during a July 28 conference call with municipal officials.
The order comes at a particularly challenging time for all employers, including municipalities, as workers return from summer vacations and family visits and some will soon be moving college students to campuses outside the region. In effect, the order means that an employee who takes a one-week vacation could actually be out of work for three weeks.
At least one Massachusetts community was ahead of the game, having previously approved new travel rules for town employees that nearly mirror the state’s order.
“We have had internal discussions for some time,” said South Hadley Town Administrator Michael J. Sullivan. “The policy was developed with town counsel’s input, and recently we were told by our AFSCME union agent that she had reviewed it with the local’s leadership.”
South Hadley’s policy requires town employees who travel to a higher-risk state to quarantine for 14 days upon returning, using sick or vacation time during the quarantine unless the town determines they can work from home.
Sullivan said the town strove to balance the needs of employees and taxpayers, and he has been “impressed how union members have been willing to work on this and other matters” during the crisis.
“It underlines the membership recognizing steps we are taking to protect the entire workforce in a reasonable manner,” he said.
In the wake of the governor’s order, other cities and towns are taking similar steps. In Needham, town employees must notify their supervisors if they plan to travel to a state not exempted by Baker’s order, and they can either produce a negative COVID-19 test result or use emergency sick leave to cover the quarantine when they return to Massachusetts, said Needham Public Information Officer Cyndi Roy Gonzalez.
“This is certainly a challenge for municipalities as we balance employees’ summer vacations and college drop-offs with the need to protect the health and safety of our workers and the community,” Roy Gonzalez said, adding that Needham also has a policy prohibiting employees from traveling for work-related purposes (unless they live out of state and regularly commute to work).
Yarmouth Town Administrator Daniel Knapik said the challenge of complying with the order has been tempered by months of work-from-home experience by municipal employees. About 65% of the town’s 85 administrative staff (generally, those other than police, fire and public works employees) have been working at home at least part of the time since the pandemic hit.
“We have a pretty robust work-at-home operation going on,” Knapik said. “It’s more about planning and work deployment logistics.”
He noted that he doesn’t anticipate many employees traveling to high-risk states in the first place.
“I think it’s really slim,” he said. “I think because people are conditioned to stay at home, it’s only going to be an issue for a few.”
For those few – and perhaps more than a few in other communities – Knapik cited a legal advisory issued last month by Morgan, Brown & Joy indicating that municipal employees subject to the governor’s order may be eligible for emergency paid sick leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. The advisory states that public employees “are eligible for [emergency paid sick leave] under six circumstances, one of which is that the employee is ‘subject to a federal, state or local quarantine or isolation order related to COVID-19.’ Governor Baker’s ‘instruction’ to self-quarantine following out of state travel counts as such an order.”
With The New York Times reporting that July’s coronavirus infections accounted for nearly 42% of all U.S. cases of the disease so far, Massachusetts municipal officials were moving quickly last week to make sure their workforces don’t add to the problem. As Gloucester was finalizing an internal policy for city employees, Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken reminded the public in a July 31 press release that, “We all have a responsibility to keep ourselves and others safe from this virus.”
Brockton Mayor Robert F. Sullivan echoed the sentiment.
“The Commonwealth has made great progress to slow the spread of COVID-19 and gradually reopen the economy,” Sullivan wrote in a July 31 memo to city employees detailing circumstances under which workers who travel to higher-risk states may use accrued vacation and/or sick time or work at home during their 14-day quarantine. “We all have a responsibility to help keep transmission levels as low as possible.”
On Aug. 4, the state Human Resources Division issued Guidance Regarding Employee Out-of-State Travel. The document provides guidance for managers and supervisors of state employees.
Written by Lisa Capone