Chad Helton, whose decision to direct the Hennepin County Library system from his home in Los Angeles has rankled librarian staff and taxpayers alike, may have to move back to Minnesota under a policy on remote work issued last week by the county.
The new policy, sent to county employees on Dec. 17 by County Administrator David Hough, states that county supervisors whose workers interact directly with the public must live in Minnesota. It takes effect Jan. 31.
Helton, who was hired in 2020, moved to California this summer saying he could perform his job through video conferencing and that he would return to the Twin Cities as needed.
The only other high-ranking Hennepin County official who lives and works outside of Minnesota or Wisconsin is Michael Rossman, chief human resources officer, who has been living and working in Palm Springs, Calif., since the beginning of 2021.
Rossman's 70-member staff, unlike Helton's, operates internally and does not interact directly with the public. But both men would be required to seek an exemption from the policy before Jan. 31 to continue to work outside the state.
Hough declined to say this week whether he would grant exemptions to the two supervisors if they sought them, and what would happen if he turned them down. "I haven't spoken to either one of them and I don't know what their intentions are," he said.
Helton did not respond to the Star Tribune's requests for comment. Carolyn Marinan, a county spokeswoman, said she had communicated with Rossman, who was taking time off and said he was "carefully considering his options around the new policy."
The Star Tribune reported this summer that Helton was working from his new home in Los Angeles, where he said he had no difficulty conducting the library system's business. Working remotely "makes us incredibly nimble," he said.
But his decision to run things from California created an uproar with library staffers, most of whom work directly with the public at the system's 41 libraries. In interviews, some employees noted they went to work daily in the libraries at risk of contracting COVID-19 while Helton was working safely from his Los Angeles condo.
About 528 permanent and temporary employees work in the Hennepin County Library system. The county has authorized up to 543 full-time equivalents for the system.
Representatives of the two unions that represent library workers criticized Helton for working in California, and some members of the public contacted County Board members to object.
Asked if the concerns raised by library staff and the public had prompted his revision of the out-of-state policy, Hough said county officials already had been thinking along that line. He said that 6,300 of the county's 9,000 employees work remotely because of the pandemic, and many will continue to do so in some way in the future.
But Hough added: "One of the criteria [of the policy] is if you have buildings in operation, you want to be available and near." Having a job where you are working face-to-face with clients, he said, "is not conducive to working in a different state, remotely."
The new policy states there is a "baseline presumption that all staff work in the state of Minnesota," and explicitly bars the county administrator and assistant county administrators from working from out of state. It states that officials appointed by the County Board or county administrator are "ineligible for out-of-state remote work unless they meet specific criteria."
"Those overseeing operations at county facilities or have staff who are in client-facing positions will not be eligible for out-of-state work," the policy states, while "all other employees designated as remote employees are eligible to work out of state with approval."
It adds that exceptions can be made "based on the discretion of the county administrator." Hough wrote that he believed the policy "will allow us to continue to meet workforce challenges including and attracting and retaining employees, and still deliver high quality services to Hennepin County residents."
Ali Fuhrman, president of AFSMCE local 2822, which represents library support staffers, hailed the new policy barring supervisory officials from working out-of-state as "a victory for workers." She said she didn't believe exceptions should be made for anyone, including Helton.
"There is no reason you should be directing things from another state, period," she said. "Whoever is directing services in the community should be living in the community."
Rossman, who makes $189,174 a year, is a longtime employee. Helton, whose annual salary is $183,855, was hired last year after heading the Los Angeles Public Library system's branch locations.
Hough last summer defended the moves of both Helton and Rossman to California, saying much of the county staff was working remotely and stressed that their permission to work out-of-state was an interim policy that would be revisited. As of August, 74 Hennepin County employees were working out of state, including 45 in Wisconsin.
Hennepin County employees who live in Wisconsin and commute to Minnesota for work aren't subject to the new policy, according to Hough. However, Wisconsin residents who are designated as remote or hybrid employees and perform some or all of their job duties from home must complete out-of-state work request forms.
"Whether designated as fully remote or hybrid, the assumption is that staff living and working in Wisconsin are able to be on site as needed or if their designation changes," Hough wrote.