3,500 Hennepin County workers announce plan to strike beginning Feb. 2

By: - January 19, 2022 5:30 pm

Hennepin County social services and clerical workers picket outside the South Service Center on Lake Street in Minneapolis on Jan. 19, 2022 after filing an intent to strike. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

More than 3,500 social service and clerical workers for Hennepin County say they will go on strike in 10 days unless the county agrees to higher wages, hazard pay and better protections against COVID-19.

“We are serious about getting what our members deserve for all the work they’ve been doing at the county through a global pandemic,” said Deb Konechne, a public health nurse, outside the county’s South Human Services Hub on E. Lake Street.

Despite a windchill sending temperatures to -20, workers fanned out across the county to picket service centers and libraries with signs reading “value workers who serve community” and “hazard pay for front line workers.”

The strike would disrupt social services for the county’s 1.3 million residents if a deal isn’t reached by Feb. 2, with nurses, child protection workers, psychologists and workers in dozens of other roles walking off the job. County officials say they’re working on contingency plans to mitigate any disruption.

The workers — represented by two bargaining units of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) — filed their intent to strike Wednesday morning, triggering a 10-day cooling off period after workers rejected what the county calls its “last, best and final offer.”

That offer includes 2.5% annual wage increases for the next three years for all workers, along with one-time $500 “Pandemic Recognition” bonuses. Some workers with satisfactory reviews would also be eligible for an additional 3% increase on top of the standard 2.5% raise. Five other unions representing correctional officers, parole officers, attorneys and other professionals accepted the offer in December.

It likely would have been readily accepted by all seven bargaining units a year or two ago, before soaring inflation ratcheted up the cost of living and the seemingly never-ending pandemic pushed front-line workers to a breaking point.

Union leaders with AFSCME Local 34 and Local 2822 are asking for 5% annual increases over the next three years as well as a $200 monthly stipend for home office supplies and better personal protective equipment.

The stand-off between the county and workers comes amid a surge in labor activism across the country, with workers unionizing and striking in droves to get higher pay and better COVID-19 protections.

If workers go through with the strike, it would be the first for county workers in more than four decades. Even during the Great Recession, county workers accepted a contract with no annual wage increase.

“I feel like my work is not being valued,” said Shanique Washington, a social worker with child protective services. “I’m sick of it. I’m so sick of it.”

Washington said the county failed to provide her with adequate personal protective equipment, telling her at times to meet with families outside and stay six feet away even during the winter. Later, the county began offering surgical masks but never armed workers with high-quality N95 masks, leading many workers to buy their own.

“I do this work because I want to make a difference, but I have to take care of myself before I take care of anyone else,” Washington said.

Washington, who makes $73,000 a year, said she used her own money to purchase a computer monitor when they switched to remote work and cashed in some of her paid time off to buy a desk.

The county disputes that workers had to pay for office supplies. Workers could come to the office to take supplies home or expense them, according to a spokeswoman with the county.

Like many of her colleagues, Washington also had to pay out of her own pocket to upgrade her internet service at home to have a fast enough connection to do her job.

Washington and her fellow county employees also watched as other front-line employees received hazard pay for working with the public during a pandemic. She even received $1,500 in hazard pay at her part-time job in a group home for people with disabilities, but nothing from the county.

Workers also complained that the county wouldn’t reimburse them for the full number of miles they traveled from home to meet a client. Under the county’s mileage reimbursement policy, workers have to subtract the number of miles they would normally travel to get to the office even though they are working from home.

For example, a worker who lives 10 miles from the office must subtract 20 miles from the number of miles they drove for work that day. The policy accounts for the fact that workers don’t have to commute to their offices each day during the pandemic. But for employees in far-flung suburbs, that could mean losing reimbursement for hundreds of miles in a single week.

“You have people that live 40 miles round trip. We have one person that lives 75 miles round trip. You subtract that and you’re not getting any mileage reimbursement,” said Shawn Wilde, a senior social worker for childcare licensing.

A county spokeswoman said the county’s mileage reimbursement policy follows federal tax law that prohibits workers from being reimbursed for normal commuting miles.

Wilde earns $83,801 a year and is at the top of the pay scale, having worked for the county for 32 years. Social workers in neighboring counties top out at significantly higher salaries.

The highest paid social workers earn $94,262 a year in Ramsey County, $110,489 in Carver County and $95,990 in Dakota County.

In a letter to employees, Hennepin County Administrator David Hough said the county’s position is firm that they stick to the offer already accepted by five other bargaining units.

“Hennepin County is committed to providing a competitive pay and benefits package to our valued employees while remaining responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars,” he wrote.

He said the county spends nearly $1 billion a year on employee pay and benefits and the “Last Best and Final Offer” amounts to an additional $240 million over three years. The county also increased its minimum wage to $20 an hour in March 2021.

The county began negotiating with workers in June 2021. It held three mediation sessions with the two unions intending to strike over the past three months including the one on Jan. 18 that resulted in no movement on either side.

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Previously, he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.