FILE - In this Jan. 27, 2021 file photo, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about vaccine distribution and abortion during a news conference in Columbia, S.C. McMaster has opened up COVID-19 vaccination to all of the state's residents ages 16 and up, saying Friday, March 26, that they could begin scheduling appointments next week and receive the vaccine starting March 31. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins, file)

The American Civil Liberties Union this week sued South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, arguing that his executive order requiring state agencies to “immediately expedite” employees' return to the office during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic exceeds the governor's authority.

The complaint, filed Monday in state court, asked that a judge halt McMaster's order, which the ACLU said “is contrary to the safety, security, and welfare of the state.”

“Governor 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 last month, as vaccinations ramped up in the state and cases of the virus declined, advising state agencies to “immediately expedite” the return of nonessential state employees to in-person work. According to the lawsuit, the order affects more than 24,000 state employees who had been working from home since McMaster's order last spring that they do so.

The day that the order was issued, ACLU attorneys wrote, there were 776 new COVID-19 cases in South Carolina, with a seven-day moving average of 1,224 cases per day.

The plaintiff, an employee at the College of Charleston, said she has been working remotely for a year and also caring for her son while he does virtual learning at home.

Her husband works away from home, and their son's school hasn't responded to a request to switch the boy to in-person learning, attorneys wrote. If she returns to the office as ordered, the woman has no childcare or “workable accommodations” if she returns to the office as ordered, according to the lawsuit.

Brian Symmes, a spokesman for McMaster, said that the Department of Administration had worked with agency heads to bring employees back to the office safely, providing flexibility for accommodations and giving time to implement safety precautions.

“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,” Symmes said in a statement. “It’s ridiculous to think that requiring employees to go to work is discriminatory in any way."

Symmes pointed to weeks given to employees to make childcare arrangements and other contingency plans, noting that 94% of the state's childcare facilities are open.

Last month, South Carolina opened vaccination to all residents age 16 and older. As of this week, nearly 1.4 million, or about 33.5% of the total population, have gotten at least one vaccine dose, according to public health officials. More than 784,000, or about 19%, have been fully vaccinated.


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