Hennepin County AFSCME fights to protect workers and community services
Minneapolis, MN – On October 20, Hennepin County workers gathered at the Government Center in downtown Minneapolis to demand, “Protect our workers, protect our community services: don’t balance the budget on our backs.”
The event was sponsored by the Hennepin County AFSCME Policy Committee, representing six AFSCME unions and over 5000 county workers.
The gathering was scheduled one day before Hennepin County Board of Commissioners were slated to authorize layoffs, mandatory furloughs, and other cuts to Hennepin County worker benefits.
These measures were delayed but will likely come before the board in the coming weeks.
What layoffs at the county would mean for the community
Proposed staffing cuts stand to roll back vital community services at a time when county residents are facing devastation from both the pandemic and the unfolding economic crisis.
The county has already permanently closed eight libraries and plans layoffs in the department along with other direct service areas such as probation. Layoff proposals stand to deepen existing racial disparities in the county and undermine the county’s recent initiative to approach racism as a public health crisis.
“Hennepin County is based on the premise of serving residents,” says Latonya Reeves, president of AFSCME Hennepin County Policy Committee and AFSMCE Local 552. “Frontline staff have worked with remarkable adaptability during these difficult times to provide excellent, efficient services to residents.
We want to ensure continued access to services amidst the ongoing pandemic, civil unrest and uncertain times for the BIPOC community and all the communities we serve. Cutting staff means limiting services and we don’t want that.”
Support for working parents
Across the country, COVID-related childcare issues are forcing parents, particularly women and women of color, out of the workforce at alarming rates.
According to recent government statistics, 617,000 women left the workforce in September alone, compared with only 78,000 men. One in four women are considering leaving the workforce, says McKinsey's and LeanIn's Women in the Workplace report. AFSCME is awaiting county-specific data but know that mothers are being hit hard.
Speaking to her experience as a county worker and mother, AFSCME Local 2822 Vice President Jayne Mikulay stated, “As a single parent I have exhausted my federal COVID FMLA leave and I have no option of remote work. I need to support my son’s distance learning and I am now being forced to take unpaid leave. I am being penalized as a woman and single parent for not having the ability to do two jobs at once.”
Women who are able to work from home find themselves in an impossible situation as well. “We are forced to choose between supporting our children, helping them educationally, paying bills and work,” says Aimee Wimberly, a county financial worker and single mother whose been working remotely since March. The AFSCME Local 34 member went on to say, “It seems the county is going out of their way to create more obstacles for us and controlling our schedules in a way that allows us no flexibility. Forcing us into using leaves that pay us significantly less than our wages and putting us into financial distress.
AFSCME is calling on the county to expand childcare leave for those who’ve run out, supplement existing federal childcare leave which only covers two-thirds of parent’s and caregivers regular pay, and create county-sponsored daycare centers.”
Workers who must work onsite are demanding increased safety measures on the job. Workers at least two Hennepin County Libraries, Minneapolis Central in downtown Minneapolis and Washburn Library, have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past weeks.
There are probably many more cases. Speaking to their experience with COVID-19, one worker wrote, “I went to the ER for asthma-related symptoms and tested positive for COVID-19. I had a bad case and was transferred to Bethesda Hospital in Saint Paul. That first day I spent worrying if my co-workers would be informed that they should get tested. It angers me that I may have unknowingly spread the virus to my co-workers, and to the patrons who visit the library. Especially when there are things that the county can be doing but are choosing not to do: such as mandatory notification of positive cases, mandatory testing and temperature checks and verbal screenings at the door, common sense things the union has been pushing for.”
Responding to the union’s request for these additional safety measures, Labor Relations Representative Kathy Megarry stated that only in “unique circumstances” would staff be notified of positive cases in the workplace. Workers at Target and other retail areas are routinely informed of positive cases.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Hennepin County workers have been voicing their health and safety concerns by speaking publicly at Hennepin County commissioner meetings.
In some areas, such as the Department of Community Corrections, the response has been silence or intimidation.
Speaking out against a rushed return to work plan in Adult Probation, AFSCME 2822 Steward Susannah Olson observed, “Mothers and employees with health concerns were given two or three days’ notice of their new schedule in the office. After speaking up at the county board meeting and filing a class action grievance, asking for a one-week extension of the return to work date, so mothers could find child care, I received a ‘coaching’ session the very next day. The coaching session questioned my union activity.”
During a meeting with AFSCME union representatives on September 16, Mark Thompson, assistant county administrator of public safety, threatened layoffs if support staff continue their advocacy.
AFSCME is calling for an end to retaliation for all those who speak out and for the removal of the coaching letter for Sue Olson and no discipline for the others.