On Tuesday, March 31, Hennepin County notified a total of 311 workers that they would no longer be allowed to work from home beginning Sunday, April 5.
These workers include about 220 library support staff and around 80 licensing service center representatives.
Workers are now in the difficult position of deciding between signing up for limited temporary reassignment spots, using up personal leave balances, taking unpaid leave and applying for unemployment, or consenting to go into a negative leave balance. In a statement, AFSCME local 2822 argues that “if workers choose a negative leave balance they are required to pay back the negative balance to the County if they are laid off.”
AFSCME demands that Hennepin County:
- Immediately stop or delay the reassignment action requiring a total of 311 County workers to either agree to be reassigned to high-risk public-facing work or use their earned leave balances and/or go into debt with the County to pay themselves;
- Provide safe, remote work, or paid administrative leave for library and service center workers;
- Provide hazard pay for workers putting their lives on the line at hotels housing the homeless and elsewhere.
Workers were offered four days to respond by County officials, however, AFSCME reports that some workers did not initially receive the notice and ended up with less than 24 hours to respond.
The text of the email is below:
AFSCME stated that according to County management, “The approximately 50 available positions are high-risk jobs providing face-to-face public service at the hotels serving community members who are experiencing homelessness, including quarantine sites for homeless residents who are symptomatic for coronavirus.”
In an email to union representatives on March 31, Hennepin County Labor Relations Director Kathy Megarry explained that impacted workers had “been identified by their departments as not having meaningful work” to do from home. Neither workers nor supervisors had been told by County Administration what would constitute “meaningful work.”
Hennepin County Libraries and Licensing Service Centers have been closed to the public since March 17 as a public safety measure to limit community transmission of COVID-19. Library support staff and Service Center representatives had been working from home by providing direct online resident services, helping plan modified remote services, and completing necessary training.
The workers being required to stop working are also some of the lowest paid in the County. The largest group of impacted workers, Library Specialists, have a starting hourly rate of $16.82.
James Nicholson, an Administrative Assistant at Hosmer Community Library in South Minneapolis and an Executive Board Member of AFSCME Local 2864, which represents librarians said, “This action of forcing our colleagues to accept potentially harmful public facing jobs or be saddled with huge negative leave balances shows a disregard for their value as human beings and employees.” Other public-facing workers in the library, like librarians and associate librarians, are still being allowed to work remotely.
Service Center and Library workers fought hard to get public-facing buildings closed when it became apparent they could not provide services to residents without putting the public and County workers at unnecessary risk.
Ali Fuhrman, AFSCME Local 2822 President and Library Specialist at Minneapolis Central Library in downtown Minneapolis said,
“Before they closed the buildings we had instances of over 100 people waiting in small service center lobbies for hours to renew their drivers’ licenses. We had hundreds of people, including many at-risk and homeless individuals coming to our libraries, specifically at our downtown public library, with no disinfecting of public computers. The workers spoke out and successfully closed the buildings. Now we are being punished for our advocacy for the public good and being told the work we continue to do remotely isn’t good enough.”
Carolyn Marinan, Public Relations Officer with Hennepin County responded to AFSCME’s concerns with the following statement.
“The Hennepin County board adopted a robust package of COVID-19 benefits to help all county employees. We closed 65 county buildings to the public and sent a significant number of our employees home to work remotely to protect their health. This was done on March 19, 2020, five days prior to Governor Walz’s “Stay at Home” order. This action was unprecedented.
We knew that it would be impossible for all employees to continue to have work at home for a prolonged period of time. Work from home would end for many of the employees on Friday, April 3, 2020, as they would no longer have assignments or online training opportunities. Earlier this week, we notified 311 employees that it was no longer feasible for them to continue working from home without work to do and those staff were given options. The options were presented along with a description of next steps and included the need to begin using available benefits. We are working diligently to reassign employees who have stated a willingness to take a temporary assignment.”
AFSCME Local 2822 and Hennepin County workers also continue to speak out against ongoing safety concerns and a lack of proper protective equipment throughout the County. Especially in light of, according to the union, “that the County has been hinting at plans to restart public services at some non-essential County facilities sooner rather than later. “
2822 Co-Chief Steward Shane Clune said,
“Workers already lack proper safety equipment. Correctional workers and detained youth at the Juvenile Detention Center and County Home School continue to work in facilities with limited or no supplies of masks, sanitizer or disinfectant wipes. This is unacceptable. How can we encourage our workers to redeploy when the County can’t provide for the staff currently deployed? And why would we divert equipment needed to save lives in hospitals to re-open non-essential buildings?”
AFSCME Local 2822, representing 1,300 clerical workers in Hennepin County, is calling on Hennepin County to immediately halt Hennepin County Administrator David Hough’s “dangerous work or debt” mandate to library and service center workers.
AFSCME LOCAL 2822 and the 5 other AFSCME locals of Hennepin County, totaling nearly 5,000 Hennepin County workers, also continue to demand:
- Full paid pandemic leave for the entirety of the COVID-19 Pandemic period for: those who are ill, at high-risk, living with or caring for others who are high-risk, parents and caregivers with children out of school/and or daycare, and those displaced from work due to building closures;
- 2X hazard pay for all workers who are essential and cannot work from home;
- Effective PPE for all workers engaging face-to-face with the public;
- Keep non-essential buildings closed until it is clear they can be made safe for our communities and workers.