The Potluck

Minneapolis city workers must return to office next month while council will continue meeting remotely

By: - December 22, 2021 4:54 pm

The Minneapolis City Hall clock tower covered in snow in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photo by Tony Webster/Minnesota Reformer.

Hundreds of Minneapolis city employees will be required to return to the office part-time beginning Jan. 10, even as the city remains under a state of emergency because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the city council plans to meet remotely through at least mid-February.

The move has angered some workers, who say the risks of bringing workers back to the office far outweigh the benefits.

“Working from home is working well,” said Nick Brambilla, a business analyst in regulatory services and board member of the Minneapolis Professional Employees Association, a union representing about 600 city workers. “And with omicron, there’s so many unknowns.”

Under the city’s so-called “Next Normal” plan, employees will be required to return to the office at least two days a week.

The emergence of the highly contagious omicron variant has led some large employers including Wells Fargo to push back plans to bring workers back downtown, bedeviling efforts to repopulate a deserted downtown.

Earlier this month, Mayor Jacob Frey proclaimed that “downtown is back and it is open!” although less than half of all downtown workers have returned to the office.

Brambilla said some city workers, especially those who have pre-existing conditions or young children not yet eligible for the vaccine, have raised concerns about returning to the office when employees are not required to be vaccinated. All employees are required to take a COVID-19 test weekly if they are not vaccinated.

A spokeswoman for the city of Minneapolis said the decision was made by Frey along with members of city council, the health commissioner and the city coordinator.

“The layered protection the city has in place, including masks, testing or proof of vaccination and ventilation, are highly effective at preventing virus spread in the workplace. About 60% of city employees haven’t been working remotely during the pandemic,” spokeswoman Sarah McKenzie wrote in an email, noting those include first responders and other employees who do not work at desks.

City employees who work in offices were told they may remove their masks while sitting at their desks, further concerning workers afraid of contracting COVID-19.

City leaders previously told employees they would be required to return to the office in September, but delayed the return due to the delta variant. City spokesman Casper Hill said Jan. 10 was chosen because it’s when the city’s state of emergency was set to expire. While city leaders extended the state of emergency earlier this month until Feb. 13, the date for employees to return to the office was not also extended.

Brambilla said the union conducted a survey of its members in the summer and many reported that not being able to work from home would affect their decision to continue working for the city. Hundreds of workers have left the city since the start of the pandemic, as part of what’s been dubbed “The Great Resignation.

“There’s the potential for the city becoming a less attractive place to work,” Brambilla said.

Minnesota state workers were told to come back to the office in January, but high infection rates in the state even before the discovery of the omicron variant led agency leaders to extend remote work options. The Metropolitan Council also decided to delay bringing workers back following new guidance from state officials.

Still, other large employers are pushing forward: Starting Jan. 10, U.S. Bank will require its employees that began working remotely during the pandemic to come back to the office at least part-time.

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Most recently 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.