With the state expected to see an increase in Medicaid applications, some workers at the Mississippi Division of Medicaid are considered essential employees and must continue reporting to work.

Some public employees say they’re stuck choosing between their health, family and pay.

Despite executive orders and legislation to protect Mississippi’s government employees from losing paychecks during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, not all workers have access to the additional paid leave ordered by Gov. Tate Reeves.

Chris Harper works in the Brandon office of the Mississippi Division of Medicaid, where he reviews applications and determines if a person is eligible for the public health insurance program.

In light of the growing coronavirus health emergency, which will result in an uptick of Medicaid applicants, he is considered an essential employee and must continue reporting to work.

But his two children, ages 4 and 7, are out of school and their grandma, who has her own health issues, can only care for them in the morning. To manage, Harper is taking off half the day, every other day.

To do this, his supervisor says he must use his personal leave — the hours state employees earn to rest, go on vacation or tend to family emergencies. Due to the virus, Reeves closed public schools until April 17, but it’s possible the closures could last longer, even through the end of the year.

At this rate, Harper will likely have used his entire allotment of vacation days by the middle of April. After that, he said agency policy dictates he’ll have to take leave without pay.

“They’re not being considerate of the people who still have to come to work and make child care arrangements and it’s unfair,” Harper said.

When announcing his executive orders to protect state workers on March 6, Reeves said his order is “actually going to ensure that we have paid leave for any state or local employees missing work due to the coronavirus.”

At a press conference Tuesday morning, Reeves said he’s given state agencies broad discretion to make staffing decisions that weigh the health of employees and the value of the services they provide to the public.

“They know far better than we do who is essential and who is not,” Reeves said.

Medicaid spokesperson Matt Westerfield issued a statement Monday, saying, “We are taking steps to protect the health and wellness of our employees while also ensuring that we can continue to carry out our core functions for the 720,000 Mississippians we cover and the providers who are risking their own well-being to serve them during this crisis.”

Westerfield confirmed the agency’s understanding that, under the Mississippi State Personnel Board rules, essential employees must use their vacation days “for the time being,” while nonessential employees have access to the administrative leave offered by Reeves’ declaration. He didn’t answer follow up questions about what would happen to employees who run out of vacation days.

Asked how he addresses some employees having to take personal leave to care for their children amid the pandemic, Reeves responded, “I’m not aware of anyone who fits that category … I’ll certainly look into that.”

The agency would not say how many employees it instructed to work from home, how many are still working from offices and how many it may have placed on administrative leave.

Harper is also worried about working with 29 other employees, a handful of whom are over the age of 60. Even though the department has moved employees further apart throughout the building, they walk through the same hallways, touch the same doors and use the same bathrooms.

“They’re really not containing it. They’re leaving room for the situation to continue, to keep spreading,” Harper said.

To reduce the spread, Harper said the office isn’t seeing clients in person. If the division had enough laptop computers to give to every employee, he could technically do his work from home.

Plus, Harper said, most people newly unemployed and applying for Medicaid amid COVID-19 won’t even qualify for the benefit — mostly due to the very low income threshold for eligibility since the state has refused to expand Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act.

Still, the division of Medicaid Director Drew Snyder does expects to see an increase in Medicaid enrollment, the cost of which the state will absorb with the help of federal legislation that increases that share of the program paid for by the federal government from 77 percent to 83 percent. Mississippi has the highest federal match of any state in the country.

In the meantime, essential state employees delivering the services, like Harper, are feeling the squeeze.

“There are literally thousands and thousands of Mississippians that are providing essential services to care for the sick, to make sure this doesn’t get worse than it already is,” Reeves said Tuesday. “I want to say to all individuals that are in essential services, and particularly to our health care workers that are on the front line: Thank you. Thank you for what you are doing.”

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Anna Wolfe, a native of Tacoma, Wa., is an investigative reporter writing about poverty and economic justice. Before joining the staff at Mississippi Today in September of 2018, Anna worked for three years at Clarion Ledger, Mississippi’s statewide daily newspaper. She also worked as an investigative reporter for the Center for Public Integrity and Jackson Free Press, the capital city’s alternative newsweekly. Anna has received national recognition for her work, including the 2021 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, the 2021 Collier Prize for State Government Accountability, the 2021 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award, the 2020 Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award and the February 2020 Sidney Award for reporting on Mississippi’s debtors prisons. She received the National Press Foundation’s 2020 Poverty and Inequality Award. She also received first place in the regional Green Eyeshade Awards in 2021 for Public Service in Online Journalism and 2020 for Business Reporting, and the local Bill Minor Prize for Investigative Journalism in 2019 and 2018 for reporting on unfair medical billing practices and hunger in the Mississippi Delta.