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Minnesota: Workers demand COVID childcare, caregiver leave at full pay

By Ali Fuhrman |
December 20, 2020
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Hennepin County workers fight for COVID childcare and caregiver leave at full pa
Hennepin County workers fight for COVID childcare and caregiver leave at full pay until schools are up and running. (Fight Back! News/Staff)

Minneapolis, MN – More than 30 mothers, parents, children and supporters who work for Hennepin County gathered at Painter Park, December 19, to call on Hennepin County Commissioners to hold an emergency board meeting to pass COVID Childcare and Caregiver Leave at full pay until schools and daycares are fully functional.

The action took place one day after Board Chair Marion Greene met with mothers and union representatives and refused to exercise her power and act.

Last spring the federal government passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), authorizing leave at two-thirds pay for parents. This leave is set to expire in two weeks.

School and childcare closures have greatly impacted the lives of all caregivers regardless of gender. However, organizers emphasized that childcare leave is largely a women’s issue. The struggle of mothers has largely been absent from mainstream media and political discussions. The continued silence and lack of action by elected officials and county administration speaks to the ongoing and systemic oppression of women.

Across the country, COVID-related childcare issues are forcing women out of the workforce at alarming rates. According to recent government statistics, 617,000 women left the workforce in September alone, compared with only 78,000 men. One in four women are considering leaving the workforce altogether.
FFCRA only guarantees paid leave at two-thirds of an employee’s hourly wage, and most Hennepin County employees cannot afford a one-third pay cut. This has left low-paid workers, single parents and parents with one-income households in financial crisis.

Regina Andrews, a welfare worker and mother of three, told supporters that she has to go in the bathroom to scream and cry on her lunch break because the stress of being a worker, mother, nurse, teacher and chef is too much.

For those who did take the leave, the loss of income has been devastating. “Two-thirds of my pay does not pay my bills,” says Aimee Wimberlay, single mother of two, also a welfare worker for Hennepin County. “I did it [took federal leave] for as long as I could and I have nearly lost my house in the process. I even attempted to apply for emergency assistance and was denied because I made too much.”

Speaking anonymously, another county worker and single mother of five stated, “Last spring I was struggling with depression and anxiety. It was very difficult. I was living in the dark. I took the time off even though it put me at financial risk. Since March I have been behind in my rent. I only can pay the late fees. I took that risk. Why? Because I was desperate and had no other choice.”

Union officials are calling on the county to pass a stopgap measure to provide COVID childcare and caregiver leave at full pay until schools and daycares are fully functional. The county leave would supplement, not supplant, any potential state or federal action.

After the action at Painter Park, attendees drove in a car caravan down Hennepin Avenue to the Walker Sculpture Garden. With signs taped to their cars reading “Hennepin County: help my mommy help me!” and “Let me eat,” the caravan passed two blocks away from Board Chair Marion Greene’s home. When participants arrived at the Sculpture Garden, they celebrated their ongoing struggle with snacks and holiday pictures in front of the iconic Spoonbridge and Cherry sculpture.

Participants vow to continue their struggle. As Latonya Reeves, president of AFSCME Local 552 and the AFSCME Hennepin County Policy Committee stated, “Hennepin County, support your workers the way we support the community.”

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