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, librarians 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 …….