A trove of emails from the newly appointed director of the Department of Administration released as part of a saga between the three branches of state government show other developments outside the scope of the ongoing conflict, including a developing plan to bring state employees back to work this summer.
DOA Director Misty Ann Giles released 885 pages of emails recently in response to a request from Democratic leadership. The emails were obtained by the Montana State News Bureau.
A set of emails show plans to discuss bringing state employees back into the office, after many began working remotely on March 16, 2020, because of the pandemic. However, that plan was later put on hold.
On April 9, Travis Hall, the senior adviser and director of strategic communications for Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte, emailed Giles for a meeting the next week to “talk about reopening state government, getting folks back in the office.”
The day prior, Giles and Anjanette Schafer, the administrator of the state Human Resources Division, discussed the draft policy for bringing employees back to state buildings, with Schafer saying the draft policy would be done April 8. The same day the chief of staff for the Office of Public Instruction contacted Giles to discuss “telework/return to work.”
But an email April 13 from Giles to Malcom Long, head of the Department of Transportation, delayed the idea of informing employees broadly of coming back into the office.
“HOLD on return to work. Talking to GG (Gianforte) on that this week given the landscape has changed there some and will follow up with the cabinet on guidance,” Giles wrote.
The department did not respond to a question asking about what Giles meant by "the landscape has changed." A spokesperson did say in an emailed statement Tuesday they're still in the process of starting to plan for a return to on-site work.
"Working with stakeholders, the administration is in the early stages of developing a plan to safely and responsibly bring state employees back into the office," the department said.
The pause in plans happened as Giles herself tested positive for COVID-19. On the morning of April 14, Giles exhibited "mild symptoms" and received a positive test result the following morning, a spokesperson for the agency said in an email last week. Staff members who had close contact with the director moved to work remotely. The department did not say how many employees were affected.
Prior to the pause, Long drafted an email saying he was going to send to all MDT employees “to start the process of coming back to work.” Long said he wanted to send that April 14 or 15.
Long’s email would have said the plan was to bring back supervisors and managers the week of May 3 and determine return dates for the remainder of employees.
“All employees will have a return-to-work plan set up with their manager to begin returning to work the week of June 4, 2021. These plans will be flexible, I understand many wish to continue some form of telework and I anticipate a mix of telework and office work for many staff.”
COVID-19 cases have generally been on a downward trend in Montana and the number of people in the state fully vaccinated has reached 284,985, or just over a quarter of the state's population.
The state Legislature recently canceled floor sessions for two days because of a lobbyist's positive case and related exposure for lawmakers and others. Gianforte has also contracted COVID-19, returning to the Capitol last week after his isolation period.