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AFSCME Local 2822 is honking to protect public health and worker safety

By staff |
April 16, 2020
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Minneapolis, MN - AFSCME Local 2822, representing almost 1300 clerical workers working for Hennepin County, is planning an April 17, 12:30 p.m. Car Convergence that will pack the Ridgedale Library parking lot, the site of the Hennepin County Library Administrative Offices, at 12601 Ridgedale Drive in Minnetonka.

The parked-car rally, with signs and social distancing , will call on Hennepin County to end its library curbside pick-up pilot program until the spread of COVID-19 is better understood in Minnesota; end its drive-through window at Maple Grove Licensing service center and delay drop box service at service centers until workers can process motor vehicle and other transactions remotely.

On Monday, April 13, Hennepin County started bringing non-essential workers represented by AFSCME Local 2822 back to provide onsite non-critical services at eight libraries and one licensing service center. Approximately 220 library specialists and 80 service center representatives had not been allowed to work remotely and had not been paid by the county since April 5. The implementation of curbside services is only providing paid work for about 30 workers, or less than 10% of the workers locked out. On April 13, AFSCME Local 2822 filed a class action grievance against the lockout action by Hennepin County. In addition, recalled associate librarians, who had been working remotely since March 19, were not allowed to continue working remotely if they declined onsite work.

Library and service center workers have been raising public health concerns about the implementation of non-essential curbside and drive-up service, especially as the county decided to make recall to these high-risk locations involuntarily, over the protest of Local 2822. The county turned the concept of workplace seniority from a benefit into a punishment. Calling the most long-term employees first, workers were told if they declined to accept recall, they would lose any paid remote work they were doing, paid leave options and potentially lose unemployment benefits. Workers were given three hours or less to accept the recall, with limited information about safety or other options for paid leave. Many workers reported not being informed about the eligibility for federal paid leave for high-risk workers or for parents/caregivers. Workers also shared that they felt coerced to accept the recall to the pilot curbside services.

Liz Knaeble, a library specialist at Webber Park Library in North Minneapolis said, “I have had to choose between going back to work where I am putting my health and perhaps my life at risk - I am 60 years old - and staying home, without knowing if I will have any money coming in. We get the message that our lives are not valued.” Knaeble ultimately decided to take care of her health and declined the recall to curbside service at Webber Park Library. She is waiting to be informed of her eligibility for unemployment benefits.

Public health concerns were raised by AFSCME Local 2822 and frontline library and service centers workers early on in the pandemic crisis. Workers fought to close public-facing buildings like licensing service centers and libraries, and to stop handling library materials at the end of March. As soon as County Administrator David Hough reported on the possibility of library curbside services at a March 19 special county board meeting, Local 2822 representatives demanded safety information.

Public health and worker safety issues continue to grow. There is concern that the basic PPE and sanitizing supplies provided on the first few days of onsite service will soon become unavailable. There are ongoing PPE supply-chain issues and the projected peak of the pandemic in Minnesota still to come. There is also concern that use of these limited supplies, while necessary to provide curbside and drive-through services safely, is taking away from the supplies available to workers in essential and high-risk county facilities.

Library workers have also been raising questions about lack of conclusive research and guidance on coronavirus transmission on library materials. Library materials are high contact, high usage surfaces. And unlike mail or delivery packages, library materials are mostly covered in plastic, including DVDs, CDs and the Mylar that covers hardcover books and most children’s materials. Current county guidelines fail to account for the difference in virus viability on plastic surfaces and paper/cardboard. A study from the National Institutes of Health, CDC, UCLA and Princeton University scientists in March found that severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) remains viable on plastic surfaces for up to three days.

Guidelines for library materials sanitation and safe handling from industry-specific sources range from 24-hours to fourteen days for quarantining materials, and recommendations for sanitizing books and other library materials like DVDs and CDs vary widely. The lack of conclusive research means that an abundance of caution should be used to protect worker and patron safety. In addition, although the library curbside locations are not officially accepting returned materials, because of a lack of knowledge of the risk to workers, library patrons have continued to leave returned materials at curbside locations. Library workers are not equipped or consistently trained to handle those returned materials safely.

Beyond transmission of the virus through library materials, curbside service puts both workers and residents into unnecessary interactions with each other. Library workers have reported issues with maintaining social distancing at some sites. The air handling system of at least one branch was malfunctioning during the first week of curbside service, which increases risk of worker-to-worker virus spread. Workers have also reported that library patrons have been handling bagged holds that weren’t theirs, leading to concerns about the outdoor curbside carts becoming a site of community transmission of the virus.

Some library patrons and community members had been putting pressure on Hennepin County Library to provide curbside library services, and to expand those services to include returns and to add more locations. But library workers are sounding this alarm for public health. “No one cares more about the library collection and access to it than frontline library workers. But circulating materials that only a few patrons can access is not worth the risk to workers and the community,” Lindsey Fenner, a library specialist at Hosmer Library in South Minneapolis and AFSCME Local 2822 executive board member, said in her open forum comments at the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners meeting on April 7.

Library workers are also pushing Hennepin County Library to focus more on providing innovative remote services that support more community members. Jayne Mikulay, a library specialist at East Lake Library and vice president of AFSCME Local 2822, said, “I am supporting my son with distance learning and we continue to see the digital divide with children and families not having access to technology. We are not supporting the communities that need the most support right now by focusing on picking up books. Holds for books are primarily placed by patrons who already have access to technology. I want to support my library community by doing what’s best for safety and what’s best for communities that experience the most disparities.” Locked-out library specialists and recalled associate librarians had been supporting the development of creative remote delivery methods for a wide range of library services.

AFSCME Local 2822 continues to demand for the entire pandemic period:
-- Remote work for all non-essential workers; essential workers at risk or caring for those at risk
-- In the event no work is available, paid administrative leave/COVID-19 leave OR
-- Extended SLWOP [special leave without pay] so workers can access unemployment benefits and maintain full employment status for the entire pandemic period
-- Truly voluntary reassignment process: No loss of income or benefits for workers who decline public facing work assignments
-- PPE and hazard pay for any workers working onsite and in the field.