Hennepin County tells library workers to staff homeless hotels or take PTO

Hennepin County library specialists are being asked to staff the county's homeless hotels or go on leave.

Hennepin County library specialists are being asked to staff the county's homeless hotels or go on leave. Star Tribune

Hennepin County has spent millions of dollars transforming three local hotels into homeless shelters.

More than 230 people, mostly seniors, have moved in. The county now needs workers to staff them, but not enough people are willing.

The county has asked employees from various departments to step in for no additional pay. It also hasn’t explained what kind of work needs to be done at the homeless hotels. As of Thursday evening, the county still has not provided job descriptions, staffing levels, or information about the availability of protective gear.

Library specialists say they’re being forced to the frontlines. Specialists work alongside librarians (who are required to have Master’s degrees in library science). They keep track of books, man the service desks, or interpret for library patrons who speak English as a second language. The job is often touted as an opportunity for the county to hire people of color. At $16.82 an hour, they're also among the county’s lowest paid employees.

Since Hennepin libraries closed for COVID-19 on March 17, librarians and library specialists moved to working from home, running online collections, assisting people search for jobs, and tutoring kids doing homework. 

A week ago, Hennepin County Administrator David Hough informed 220 library specialists they could no longer do that. Instead, they could apply to redeploy to a homeless hotel. 

Those who weren’t able or willing would have to start using their paid time off days. Should they run out of PTO, they could borrow up to 240 hours of leave and go into debt with the county. Their final option is to take unpaid leave.

It’s unclear if workers would be eligible for unemployment in that case, and the county didn’t say how long workers could go on leave before being laid off.

Specialists were given 48 hours to make their choice.

“The work at the homeless hotels is extremely important. We’re very supportive of it. But that work should be voluntary, and people should be compensated,” said Ali Fuhrman, a library specialist at Central Library and AFSCME Local 2822 president. “These are the lowest paid workers at the county, and we’re being expected to pay for it, to pay for the crisis.”

The librarians’ union is asking the county to explain what needs to be done at the homeless hotels, given that most members don’t have experience working at shelters. They’re requesting additional pay for those who volunteer, and the opportunity to continue working remotely for everyone else.

There’s work to be done, according to library managers. On Tuesday, they emailed all remaining library staff to join six newly created rapid response teams to promote and curate online references for adult continuing education, early literacy material for young families, and educational support for K-12 students and teachers.

Additionally, eight Hennepin libraries will begin to offer curbside pickup on April 13.

In neighboring Ramsey County, library staff are still employed after the county board passed a resolution recognizing their work as essential to supporting the community. While libraries are closed, staff are offering curbside book pickup at three locations, virtual storytime, and tech support by phone. Those working from home are building out digital catalogues and the website.

Update: Friday morning, the county said staff reassigned to homeless hotels would "provide a variety of tasks such as answering phones, assist with scheduling, running supplies, etc.," and would receive personal protective equipment "as required to fulfill their duties."

It declined to reveal staffing levels at the hotels.