Hennepin County workers refuse contract offers, threaten strike (updated)

(l-r) Cassandra Hendricks, Ubah Sharif, and Brett Schlosser pose for a photograph after a picket sponsored by AFSCME Local 2822. The union may strike soon if they do not reach an agreement with Hennepin County.
Photo by Henry Pan

Update:  On Thursday, AFSCME Local 2822 released the following statement:

Today AFSCME Local 2822 came to a tentative agreement with Hennepin County averting a potential strike. The agreement comes one day after Local 34 also reached a tentative deal. Workers represented by these two units will begin voting on the contract next Wednesday, Feb 2, the first day workers were poised to walk out...

While the agreement didn’t meet all the union’s demands, negotiators were able to move because the employer came to the table with a better offer. The deal also includes a 2.5% cost of living increase each year for three years for everyone, plus 3% annual wage increases for most workers, a $500 pandemic recognition pay, increased flexibility for funeral leave, increased paid parental leave from three to six weeks and increased bus subsidies for workers.

Wages and hazard pay at issue

Janay Fletcher was excited to join Hennepin County as an office support specialist in 2015, working with the human services department handling child protection cases. “I was excited to be part of something that I’ve heard so much about,” said Fletcher.

But she and her union, AFSCME Council 5 Local 2822, are about to go on strike come February 2. Fletcher makes $25 an hour, which she says isn’t enough to cover rent at her two-bedroom New Hope residence, utilities, and maintaining her car, in addition to caring for a young cousin. To make up for the difference, she works 20-30 hours a week at a Total Wine shop. 

Even that’s hard to balance. “One of my coworkers, she is actually on maternity leave,” said Fletcher. “So I will have to commute [from New Hope] to Richfield to provide coverage. The Total Wine is in Maple Grove, so I’ll [then] have to commute back to Maple Grove.”

The pay is just one point of contention that Local 2822 and another union, AFSCME Council 5 Local 34, have with the County. The unions want more pay than what management is offering, which is a 2.5% wage increase per year over the next three years, plus an additional 3% for those who perform “satisfactorily,” as long as they are not at the wage ceiling. 

Workers also want hazard pay, remote work pay, and guarantees for personal protective equipment. Both parties have been negotiating since June to no avail. The last contract expired at the end of December. If ever ratified, the increases would not take effect retroactively. 

The contract covers close to 40% of the County’s 9,000-person workforce and includes library associates; workers who handle food stamps, healthcare and cash benefits, drivers’ licenses, marriage licenses, and vehicle tabs; those who provide customer service for the County’s public healthcare plan; and those who manage sheriffs’ records, to name a few. 

The County appears committed to the 2.5% annual wage increases over the life of the contract. But wages won’t increase this year if the proposed contract is ratified.

“Five other units [representing probation officers, corrections officers, and librarians] face the same inflation and the same varying level of employees at the max and not getting market adjustments, and they still ratified,” said county spokesperson Carolyn Marinan in an e-mail. 

Marinan said the wage increases for those not at max pay caught up with inflation not only because the workers performed, but also because the county was being generous. “There have been many recent years when we gave 2.5% when inflation was zero. We haven’t seen a total [public sector contract] package offer higher than ours [in the state].”

Workers represented by the union in 2019 made anywhere from $15.84 an hour for a sheriffs’ records clerk trainee to $19.78 an hour for someone who interprets convoluted legal property descriptions. Those positions topped off at $23.63 and $29.91 an hour, respectively. 

Last March, starting wages for every classification represented by the union was bumped up to $20 an hour when the County board increased the minimum wage for its jobs. While the minimum wage is not indexed to inflation, the County’s human resources director can consider employment and economic conditions in deciding when to raise it, and the County says it will increase as part of a ratified agreement. 

Cassandra Hendricks works as an associate librarian at the County’s Washburn branch on Lyndale Avenue. She decried the proposed wage increase, saying what she is now and will be paid is not enough for the work she is doing, which includes creating and running programs such as curbside pickup, culling and sorting books, as well as staffing the entire library at times. 

“I was hired into an understaffed workplace and have only seen it get worse in the two years I’ve worked in the library,” said Hendricks. “So we’ve been on the front lines of the pandemic this whole time, and been in [the] building, and yeah, [we] want to be paid fairly for the work that we’ve been doing.”

The proposed pay raise is also not enough for the expenses she has to pay, which include rent and student loans for her library science graduate work. The starting pay for the position is the same as a teen specialist, at $20 per hour. Teen specialists, however, only work up to 12 hours per week. 

The proposed contract increases the wage ceiling for most represented positions. But the floor for most entry-level positions will remain where they are, this might make it harder for those new to the County to achieve the highest pay grade in their position, depending on how long they are in it. 

Take the human service representatives, who handle food stamps, for example: The starting wage for a junior-level position in 2021 is $20.27 per hour, which would only increase by 2.5% annually. However, the top pay will change from $27.37 per hour to $29.58 per hour. The senior-level human service representatives will see their starting wage change from $20 per hour to $23.76 per hour, with the ceiling increased from $34.75 per hour to $35.93 per hour. 

Another point of contention is hazard pay. The County is offering a one-time $500 payment to all of its workers, including workers they hire in the coming years into remote and hybrid positions. This is not enough for Fletcher, who said she is not being compensated for using her home as a workplace for the County. 

“More of a payment that I would like to see…let’s go with a $3,000 hazard pay stipend. You know, let’s go with $1,000 lump sum for remote workers, and $100 monthly stipend after that,” said Fletcher. 

Workers think the County has the money to provide them with hazard pay, in part because County buildings have seen less use as work from home increased. “So the County’s got this extra money from that,” said James Leonardo, a librarian at Hosmer Library in South Minneapolis. 

As for protective equipment, the County recently ordered 50,000 KN95 masks for their workers but say they are unable to contractually commit to PPE because of ongoing supply chain issues. 

Leonardo hopes that they will get what they want from the County owing to the work that they’ve done so far during the pandemic. “This isn’t just a library. This is, you know, teachers, nurses, all the frontline staff, the people working in the grocery store, all the folks who are coming in. We’re keeping everything going right now,” said Leonardo.