After a monthslong union campaign, Hennepin County has created a child care leave policy to replace the one provided by the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which expired at the end of 2020.
The Hennepin County Board voted unanimously last week to establish 160 hours of two-thirds paid leave for employees caring for children not in school or daycare because of the coronavirus. It also voted to adjust its existing negative leave program to give employees an opportunity to have those hours forgiven.
After speaking at public comment and holding rallies, the union requested fully paid caregiving leave through a Board Action Request in December, which didn't pick up any board members to represent it for a vote. Instead, commissioner Marion Greene presented a new Board Action Request at the Jan. 26 meeting, which outlined the partially paid leave and forgiveness of negative leave. The board passed the proposal on Feb. 2.
"I think this is a really good step towards meeting the needs of caregivers in this county," AFSCME Local 2864 vice president and county librarian Angel Gardner-Kocher said during public comment. "I think we're better suited to serve our communities and our residents when we can offer them our full attention."
Union members started pushing for a fully paid childcare leave policy in fall 2020 when they were informed the county, which has a predominantly female workforce, didn't have a leave policy to replace the FFRCA, said AFSCME Local 2822 president Ali Fuhrman.
"We said, that's unacceptable," Fuhrman said.
In response, County Administrator David Hough said in December that employees already had access to 240 hours of negative leave for any pandemic-related reason.
But negative leave, which employees would have to accrue back before obtaining additional PTO, isn't a sufficient solution, union members said.
“It ties us into a really impossible situation for a long time after the pandemic,” Deb Konechne said. “We don't want our members indebted to the county for any leave.”
With the new policy, employees "in good standing" with the county can have 60 hours forgiven per year over the next four years.
"We wanted to recognize ... it's daunting in the repayment capacity, to be indebted to that many hours," said Michael Rossman, Hennepin County chief human resources officer.
County employee Aimee Wimberly said she had tried using the two-thirds paid leave under FFRCA, but the financial strain it placed on her prevented her from doing it again. Having an option to forgive negative leave is a gamechanger, she said.
"This is a long-awaited win for Hennepin County employees who are trying to parent, teach and work all at the same time," Wimberly said in a statement. "I feel relief knowing that I feel heard, even though it took some time."