By GWEN OREL
While the Montclair school district has gone to all-remote learning, all 365 municipal employees had to report back to the office on Sept. 8.
Town hall is still not open to the public, and a reopening date has not yet been set.
Montclair joins neighboring towns that have called employees back to work, including Cedar Grove, Bloomfield and South Orange.
Township employees can work from home if they have children in grades K-8 who are in school remotely, but only three days a week, and if approved.
Parents of older children with special needs can also apply to work from home three days a week, if they disclose their children’s health conditions and their lack of child care.
Others who wish to work from home part-time must use personal leave.
No accommodations have been made for parents of high school children or for those with elderly parents.
Those who do apply to work from home must show that no one is in the home to look after their children when learning remotely, that there is no alternative daycare or child care option, and that their work-from-home capabilities are adequate. They can only work from home on those days the children are learning remotely, not when the children are in school physically.
Employees may also use accrued benefit time, including sick days and vacation days, to work from home, or apply to take a leave of absence at the approval of the township manager.
After Dec. 31, the remote option goes away, and all employees must return to the office.
The email announcing the Sept. 8 return was sent Sept. 1, but according to Communications Director Katya Wowk the date had been discussed weeks prior.
Neither Mayor Sean Spiller nor Township Manager Tim Stafford responded to questions about why it was necessary to recall all employees back to in-person work, and whether it is due to equipment or materials employees cannot access at home.
At the start of the pandemic on March 19, Gov. Phil Murphy’s Executive Order 107 required work-from-home arrangements for both essential and nonessential employees wherever feasible. New Jersey entered phase one of its reopening in May and phase two in June, both of which suggested all workers who can work from home continue to do so. Although the state has not yet entered phase three, the governor’s Road Back to Recovery plan allows for workers to continue working from home.
Social-distancing measures such as 25-percent capacity, allowing employees 6 feet of space, and face masks must be adhered to in Town Hall,
The township offered testing for municipal employees in July, Wowk said.
Surrounding municipalities have also called employees back to work: Cedar Grove has been open for two weeks. The building is not open, but residents can visit the lobby and an employee will come down to talk to them. Meetings are still held virtually.
Bloomfield has had its employees back since May; South Orange employees have been working in the office since May 18.
As a result of the return-to-work order, the Montclair Department of Senior Services expects it may see reduced staffing. An email from Director of Senior Services Katie York advised patrons that the physical return could mean some classes will be canceled due to reduced staffing because employees will need to take leave to be able to stay home.
“The township recognizes how important its programming [is] in all instances and especially to senior citizens seeking to avoid social isolation. A direct purpose of the return-to-work plan is to ensure full township operations and programming with as little disruption wherever and whenever possible,” Stafford said.
The township has taken steps to make work at town hall as safe as possible, according to Stafford, noting that some New Jersey municipal governments had employees return to the workplace in June.
Before reopening to employees, township buildings were professionally sanitized, and personal protective equipment has been issued to all employees.
The front door is designated for entrance, and the back door for exit. Before an employee can enter, he or she must have a temperature check. If the person’s temperature is 100.4 or higher, they wait 15 minutes for a second reading. If it remains high, the person may not go in.
Start times are not staggered, but Wowk said she has never seen a queue.
Inside the building, one staircase is designated “up” while another is “down”; disinfectant, paper towels and gloves are provided in various places in the building.
“There’s sanitizer everywhere you turn,” said Wowk.
Employees are responsible for disinfecting their own workstations, she said.
Only two people can ride in the elevator. Employees must wear masks when not at their own workspace.
New filters have been installed in the HVAC system.
Meetings are being held virtually, “unless social distancing can be maintained,” Stafford said.