FILE - South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster speaks with reporters Thursday, April 23, 2020, after the first meeting of accelerateSC, his advisory group about reopening the state economy in Columbia, S.C. 

(The Center Square) – South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster’s office said Tuesday a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union over the legality of his executive order requiring nonessential state workers return to their workplaces was “ridiculous.”

“South Carolinians all over the state have been going to work, in person, throughout the last year and they have been able to do it safely,” McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes said in a statement. “It’s ridiculous to think that requiring employees to go to work is discriminatory in any way.”

The ACLU filed the complaint Monday in state court and asked for a judge to place an injunction on McMaster’s order, which the ACLU called “contrary to the safety, security and welfare of the state.”

“Gov. McMaster’s return-to-in-person-work order ignores public health guidelines and the continuing serious health risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and people with disabilities, women and caregivers will bear the brunt of the impact,” ACLU of South Carolina Legal Director Susan Dunn said in a statement.

McMaster issued the order March 5 as vaccinations became more available statewide and new COVID-19 cases declined, mandating “state agencies must immediately expedite the transition back to normal operations.”

The ACLU said in its lawsuit, however, that “normal operations” were not feasible March 5, nor is it still feasible, and that the order is potentially dangerous for state workers.

“When Gov. McMaster first declared a public health emergency on March 13, 2020, there were 21 recorded cases of COVID-19 in South Carolina total, and a 7-day moving average of 2 cases per day,” the lawsuit stated. “By contrast, on March 5, 2021, when Gov. McMaster ordered state agencies to return state non-essential employees to the office, there were 776 new cases on that day alone, and a 7-day moving average of 1,244 cases per day.”

State agencies were required to submit plans to the governor’s office by March 10, and all state employees were expected to be manning their workplaces by March 15.

The ACLU’s lawsuit maintains the order affected more than 24,000 state employees who had been working from home since last March, including Deborah Mihal, director of Disability Services for the College of Charleston, who is the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Mihal had been working remotely for a year and caring for her son while he does virtual learning at home and her husband works away from home. Her son’s school did not respond to a request to switch to in-person learning, leaving her without “workable accommodations” if she returns to the office as ordered.

“The governor’s order forces me to choose between protecting the safety of my family and a paycheck,” Mihal said in the lawsuit. “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.”

Department of Administration Executive Director Marcia Adams said Tuesday during a Cabinet meeting about 5% of state agency employees still are working remotely.

Symmes said state agencies have given – and are continuing to provide – nonessential employees time and flexibility to make child care arrangements and other accommodations before returning to work in person, noting 94% of the state’s child care businesses are open.

“The Department of Administration has done an incredible job working with agency heads to bring state employees back into the office in a safe way, providing flexibility to make accommodations when necessary and giving agencies time to implement safety precautions in the workplace,” he said.