With federal relief expiring, Hennepin County workers push for expanded leave policy

AFSCME is pushing for the County Board to include funding for caregiving leave in its 2021 budget
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AFSCME members rally for the county to fund their leave proposal. Photo provided by Ali Fuhrman

AFSCME members rally for the county to fund their leave proposal. Photo provided by Ali Fuhrman

In a typical day, Hennepin County human services representative Aimee Wimberly spends over six hours on the phone with welfare clients.

“Sometimes, you’re all they have to talk to,” she said. “Sometimes, you can be stuck on the phone with them for a very long time.”

When she’s done with one call, she has a matter of minutes before she’s required to begin the next. If she has to step away, she’s required to file that time as Paid Time Off, she said.

This leaves Wimberly, a single mother, with little time to help her 7-year-old and 13-year-old children with schoolwork, she said. As she tried to juggle all of her personal and work responsibilities earlier this year, she took leave at two-thirds pay under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA). It gave her the time she needed, but also forced her into forbearance on her mortgage.

“No one should have to be in this predicament,” she said.

Wimberly is part of an all-women crew of Hennepin County employees that have drafted a policy for fully paid leave for those caring for dependents during the pandemic until schools and other care facilities are fully open. The county’s six AFSCME local unions are pressing the County Board to allocate funding for the policy in its final budget meeting Tuesday.

The policy would replace the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which expires at the end of the month, says AFSCME Local 2822 President Ali Fuhrman.

The union contends the county can fund fully paid leave by using $6.5 million out of the roughly $9 million it didn’t spend on health insurance premiums when it instated “premium holidays,” which also waive the premium for employees, for two pay periods earlier this year.

The county's health insurance program is self-funded, meaning that employees and the county pay into a reserve used to cover healthcare expenses. 

The county board approved the premium holidays at its Sept. 29 meeting. 

“We’re saying: that was wrong to take that out of our healthcare fund,” says Deb Konechne, steward for AFSCME Local 34 and public health nurse. “Now that it is there, it should be used for our workers that are in need.”

County Administrator David Hough says the county used the premium holidays as one of several tools to save money during the pandemic. The $6.5 million it saved is going into a “rainy day” contingency fund, which could potentially be used to avoid layoffs in the future, he said. 

“The union contends it’s their money, but it’s not their money. It’s the taxpayer's money. It’s an employer expense,” Hough said. 

He pointed to the county’s current offerings for employees, which allow up to 160 hours of leave if an employee contracts COVID or needs to quarantine, as well as 240 hours of negative leave that employees can use for various pandemic-related issues.

Hennepin County Board Chair Marion Greene did not respond to requests for interviews. 

Union representatives dismiss Hough’s claim that employees currently have adequate access to leave.

If employees don’t have enough accrued time and need to take leave for pandemic-related reasons outside of being sick or quarantining, they can use the negative leave, which means they have to accrue that time back before they can take additional paid time off, Konechne said.

“It ties us into a really impossible situation for a long time after the pandemic,” she said. “We don't want our members indebted to the county for any leave.”

Across the river, Ramsey County has provided a “Paid Extraordinary Pandemic Event Leave,” which allows employees up to 80 hours of fully paid leave “in the event an employee must be absent due to a COVID-19 health-related reason, including school and child care closures related to COVID-19.”

The PEPEL will remain in place until the local state of emergency is lifted, according to county spokesperson John Siqveland.

Under the FFCRA, which expires Dec. 31, Hennepin County employees who are sick or need to quarantine can take up to two weeks, or 80 hours, of paid sick leave at regular pay, with an additional 80 hours at two-thirds pay available for taking sick leave, caring for a sick family member or caring for a child whose school or daycare is closed.

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It provides an additional 10 weeks at two-thirds pay if an employee needs to care for a child whose school or daycare is closed because of the coronavirus.

So far, nearly 300 Hennepin County employees have used the leave, according to AFSCME.

Fuhrman, the president for AFSCME Local 2822, says that number would probably be higher if all employees, including the county's lowest-paid workers and single parents, could afford to take leave with two-thirds of their pay. 

“We’re exploiting women; it’s too much for us to expect them to do distance learning with their children and work,” Fuhrman said. “A lot of them just need a couple hours every day to take care of their children, and they need the flexibility to do it when their children need them.”

Since March, 160 employees have left the county. Ninety-five of those employees are women, according to county data obtained by the union.

“We’ve worked so hard for our residents to give them what they need,” Wimberly said. “We kind of want the same thing in return.” 

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