Minneapolis

Minneapolis’ pandemic furloughs hit women, people of color hardest

2021-06-08 12:39:21 –

When Minneapolis leaders announced plans last year for furloughs of hundreds of city workers amid a pandemic-driven financial crisis, they said they were doing all they could to spread the pain evenly. But in reality, women — especially women of color — bore the brunt of austerity measures designed to help fill an estimated $156 million budget hole, according to a new internal report.

The “action review” found that nearly 72% of the 365 female employees who identify as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) were forced to take unpaid days off. The as-yet-unpublished report said that the city’s cost-saving process had been opaque and needlessly rushed, while failing to live up to the city’s publicly stated commitment to racial equity.

“The pandemic was used as the reason this could not have been done as the city was ‘bleeding money’ that needed to be stopped immediately. Or it was used as an anomaly,” wrote the report authored by members of the City Coordinator’s Office.

“What is revealed is actually who we really are & who holds the power at the city, what we really value, and how we really feel about our employees, especially those represented by a labor union,” it said.

The Star Tribune obtained a copy of the 400-plus-page report, which has been distributed to a number of City Council members and other city staff but won’t be presented in public until the June 16 meeting of the Committee of the Whole.

The report argued that while responsibility for deciding where to make cuts was supposed to fall to the head of each department, such decisions were made by the finance and human resources departments, with approval from Mark Ruff, the city coordinator, with little outside input. The process also lacked transparency, the report contended.

“We heard several examples from people at all levels of the organization who came up with alternative plans, using a racial equity lens, to avoid furloughs and were denied the opportunity to implement them by HR and the City Coordinator,” the report says.

The report further suggested that such a decisionmaking process violated a 2011 ordinance requiring that furloughs be applied “as equitable as possible,” which could conceivably open the city to legal challenges. Instead, the report says, “decisions relating to who would be furloughed was decided upon by finance and HR before departments were instructed to create and maintain furlough plans.”

Numerous employees, quoted anonymously in the report, said that the experience of working at the city last year had left them feeling overlooked, underappreciated and overworked.

As the COVID-19 pandemic raged last year, the city negotiated furloughs with many of its unions and imposed furloughs for some other employees as a way to save roughly $4.3 million amid the virus’ economic fallout, according to the report’s authors. But whether the city reached that cost-saving goal — in other words, the report says whether the furloughs were even fiscally necessary — is unclear because city leadership has steadfastly refused to share financial records, the authors say.

But the furloughs, the study says, were carried out with little or no consideration for the burden they would place on Black and brown women, who tended to work union jobs and have been disproportionately affected economically by the pandemic — likening the process to “using a sledgehammer when you need a scalpel.”

The report found that overall women were disproportionately affected, with roughly 72% of female workers were put on furlough; they make up less than a third of the city’s workforce (1,227 employees out of 4,056).

By contrast, about 28% of male employees were furloughed, the report found.

Among the “key decision makers” interviewed for the study were Ruff, human resources officer Patience Ferguson and departed budget director Micah Intermill, as well as members of the city’s Black and Asian Pacific employee associations, union leaders and dozens of other employees at various levels of government.

Ruff said in an interview Monday that given the city’s dire budget situation last year, any plan that didn’t involve furloughs would’ve taken some financial gymnastics — “an approach which would’ve demanded more of the labor unions to participate, especially those unions that had a higher number of BIPOC employees.” In the past, the city might have turned to mass layoffs, he said.

“The information that our human resources department had provided was that layoffs would also significantly impact people of color,” said Ruff, who is singled out in the report along with a handful of other current and former city leaders. “That’s not an excuse for the real and harsh impact that this had on many of our employees, and I’m not diminishing it whatsoever.”

While he said that the report’s findings were concerning he said, the disparities were “directly related to the fact that we tend to have more males and white employees in our emergency response department and public works who were not as impacted.”

“Because if we were going to furlough a firefighter, it just means that you would’ve had to pay some overtime for someone to take his or her place,” he said.

“I think in some ways this report shows that we could’ve done better,” he said, adding that “a fair amount of improvement would’ve been around better communication and timing around” offering voluntary leave for workers to reduce the need for furloughs.

At the same time, he conceded that city leadership needed to “hold ourselves accountable.” He also said the city was taking steps to assist those workers who were most impacted by the pandemic, pointing to a recent proposal by Mayor Jacob Frey to set up a fund for city employees furloughed during the pandemic with American Rescue Plan dollars.

Fifth Ward Council Member Jeremiah Ellison said he hadn’t seen the full report yet but was familiar with its findings. “I just think we’ve got to live our values, and I think that this review and the city staff who worked on it are trying to make sure that we’re there,” he said Monday.

A separate furlough impact study is planned by the Internal Audit department as part of its larger review of the city’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While final figures haven’t been released, estimates announced last July showed the city expected to lose roughly 10% of its $1.6 billion budgeted revenue in 2020.

“What this and other findings show is we need to build in pauses along the decision making & implementation paths that allow us to pause, reassess the situation, reflect, then make changes, if needed,” the report recommended.

“We also need to ensure there are more people, with different perspectives included in key decisions that impact the people who work here and how the work gets done.”

The city’s former civil rights director, Velma Korbel, said that before leaving the city late last year she told leadership they needed to apply a “racial equity lens” to any furlough-related decisions, “because the way the furloughs were structured, it was impacting folks who were coming into the workforce more recently” and those who worked in clerical and administrative positions.

“And those are the jobs that are done by women and people of color,” said Korbel.

Aaron Sojourner, a labor economist and University of Minnesota associate professor, said the report’s findings reflect a national trend that saw the pandemic exact its greatest toll on low-wage workers in clerical jobs, retail stores, restaurants and other “face-to-face jobs.”

“Having public schools closed, having child care centers have to change how they do business, having elder care, nursing homes be more dangerous for a long time, all of those things created an extra care burden on families, and I think disproportionally women took on these care responsibilities and gave up earning opportunities to manage those,” said Sojourner, who hasn’t read the report.

Staff writer Liz Navratil contributed to this report.

Correction:
A previous version incorrectly reported the percentage of female Minneapolis city workers who were furloughed, according to the report.

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