Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Montana legislative staff to work remotely over virus concerns

Montana – The researchers, attorneys and fiscal analysts who work for the state Legislature will do their jobs remotely for the first two weeks of the 2021 session, according to an email sent to lawmakers late Wednesday.

Susan Fox, executive director of the Legislative Services Division, said in the email that the session, which Monday amid the COVID-19 pandemic, will likely see other changes on the fly.

“These are unprecedented times with much uncertainty. Many decisions this session will be made as the need arises, including how committees are staffed. After the second week of the session, we will reevaluate the situation and modify as needed,” Fox wrote.

In a phone interview Thursday, Fox said the staff referenced in her email to lawmakers total about 20, and some staff work multiple committees. These staffers support lawmakers, distribute bill drafts and amendments, and conduct any research or legal questions, she said.

The remote work decision allows time to see what configuration of lawmakers, lobbyists and public appear regularly in committee rooms in the early stages of the session, Fox said.

In December, lawmakers approved rules for the 2021 session that allowed remote participation for lawmakers, the public and legislative staff, but installed no requirements of precautions recommended by health officials to slow the spread of the virus.

Most of the nearly 100 GOP lawmakers plan to attend in person. Though the Republican proposal includes a panel that will meet after the session starts and has broad authority to address things like distancing measures, what those precautions might look like isn’t clear yet.

Fox also asked lawmakers who come into staff areas be masked and follow distancing guidance.

Lawmakers conducting legislative business in legislative spaces do not fall under the statewide mask mandate. Staff do, however. It’s unclear if incoming Republican Gov.-elect Greg Gianforte will continue that mandate when he takes office the same day the Legislature convenes.

“This decision was made with a great deal of thought and in consultation with the (Senate) President and Speaker (of the House),” Fox wrote in the email. “Your legislative staff is dedicated to serving the Legislature with the highest of professional standards while ensuring a safe working environment during the session.

Staff have been directed to be in their offices during hearings and executive action on bills if the employee is willing and able to do so, Fox said in the email. Any lawmaker who wants to interact with staff in the office was asked in the email to wear a mask and be socially distanced during the interaction.

Fox told the Montana State News Bureau on Thursday she did not have a firm number, but expected a “good percentage” of the committee staff to work remotely from home in the early weeks of the pandemic. The Legislature’s page program, in which high schoolers assist House and Senate staff, is still taking place, although Fox said the number of program participates is expected to be down from previous years. Session staff and the Sergeant at Arms, Fox said, will likely need to pick up the slack.

Senate President Mark Blasdel, R-Kalispell, said in a phone interview Thursday lawmakers will respect that staff work places are “mask required” areas.

“Our staff is as professional as they come,” Blasdel said. “It’s been something we’ve been working on throughout the leadup to the session and just certainly not wanting to put anybody in a position that they don’t want to be in.”

House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, a Democrat from Helena, said the opportunity for staff to work remotely helps protect the Helena community and the local economy.

“We’re glad that Legislative staff are taking measures to keep themselves safe, and protect the health of our community and businesses across the state,” Abbott said through a spokesperson Thursday.

In a follow up email to reporters Thursday, Fox said many other staffers have also been working remotely ahead of the session and those who must do certain tasks in-person will be wearing masks and socially distancing. Most staff had worked remotely in November, when the public health officer in Lewis and Clark County recommended all lawmakers participate remotely in the caucuses and orientations that month, although a staff member was present in each of the caucus rooms.

“We have the proven capability to provide support remotely while they (legislative leadership) are determining how the committees will fit into their respective rooms,” Fox said. “This decision was not only one of workplace safety, but also logistics and consistency.”

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