The economic fallout from COVID-19 has devastated local government finances, and Hennepin County – responsible for the heavy-duty work of housing the homeless – is in a tight spot.
As families suffer the strain of job loss and the indefinite closure of in-person school, the need for services is greater than ever, even while the county’s revenues drop.
County Administrator David Hough has proposed a 2021 budget of $2.1 billion, or $300 million less than 2020. Despite the county’s financial hardship, he’s recommending no increase in property taxes.
Instead, Hennepin County plans to lay off frontline workers to balance the 2021 budget. Hough recommends cutting 110 full-time employees, the majority of whom work for Hennepin County Library and the county corrections department. He also wants to add 30 full-time employees to human services and internal services, for a net reduction of about 80 full-time county employees.
A proposal authorizing Hough to implement those layoffs, as well as mandatory furloughs for all employees, briefly appeared before a subcommitte of the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners on October 6.
According to AFSCME, 66 library positions have already been cut this summer. Around the same time, the county added a library management position, which librarian Ali Fuhrman sees as an insult to frontline workers.
Fuhrman, president of AFSCME Local 2822, says the union has been fighting for more diversity in hiring, and many of those laid off will be people of color. Fuhrman believes that if layoffs are inevitable, the county should cut managers who work remotely, making more than $100,000 a year, instead of frontline staff who provide direct services to the public.
County employees have also been asking for more work-from-home flexibility, notification when co-workers test positive for COVID-19, and assurances that they won’t be retaliated against for bringing pandemic concerns to the board.
Susannah Olson, who’s worked in Hennepin County for 29 years, told board commissioners during their September 15 meeting that probation staff had just a few days’ notice before they were ordered to return to the office in August. No supervisors were present to help them transition back, and staff were tasked with extra cleaning duties on top of their regular jobs.
“The support staff did not feel safe in the offices, working alone, due to lack of security or COVID exposures, which occurred. There was no communication about the COVID exposure from their supervisor, and they had to find out from other sources,” Olson said. “They were not notified to be tested, [or] to quarantine themselves.”
Olson filed a class action grievance asking to delay returning to work so that mothers could find childcare. She then received a “coaching session,” which questioned her union activity, according to AFSCME.
Hennepin County doesn’t notify staff or members of the public that an employee has tested positive for COVID-19 unless they’ve been working within six feet of someone confirmed positive for at least 15 minutes, following the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) definition of “close contact.”
Workers have spoken up against Hough's proposed layoffs during recent board meetings, urging commissioners to take responsibility for cutting jobs and health benefits during the pandemic, instead of shifting the blame to Hough, its appointee.
“Obviously, we’re opposed to any layoffs, but especially of frontline staff,” said Jim Ahrens, chief steward of AFSCME Local 2864 union. “But we also feel strongly that any decision should be made by you, not by an administrator. It’s a serious enough decision. It’s not appropriate for any administrator to decide that people should lose their jobs without specific and explicit approval by the board of commissioners.”
Hough has tabled his request for layoff authority, but said he was still “evaluating all options” to reduce the budget. He may resubmit the proposal before December 15, when the board must finalize next year’s budget.
"The county is always considering many options to serve the needs of residents while being fiscally responsible. These are difficult and challenging times. With so many people in need we count on and appreciate the employees doing this work every day," according to a Hennepin County statement.
"Employee safety is a priority, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hennepin County has worked hard to put practices and policies in place to keep employees safe. As we navigate new ways of doing business due to COVID-19, we continue to adjust, adapt and learn. That includes communicating more broadly when someone tests positive. We will continue to adjust our policies and practices during the pandemic to ensure that we protect the safety of our employees as we deliver services to our residents."
Correction: A previous version of this article erroneously stated that library staff were laid off this summer. It has been updated to reflect that 66 positions were eliminated from the library budget.