Hennepin County on Friday opened a third temporary shelter at a hotel to house homeless people who are at risk of catching COVID-19.
For the past month, the county has been moving the homeless awaiting test results and older residents from shelters and isolating them in hotels to prevent the spread of the virus.
So far, 233 high-risk residents have been moved from congregate shelter settings into hotels, including 153 seniors and 80 other high-risk residents. As of Friday, no one had tested positive for COVID-19 and two were still awaiting results.
At one hotel, 37 people have been in isolation with flu-like symptoms but zero positive COVID-19 tests. Nineteen have recovered and 18 will remain until they are asymptomatic.
Sheltering the homeless in hotels is an expensive proposition. County Administrator David Hough received the County Board’s approval for $5.5 million for the plan, which costs the county about $350,000 a week, he said.
Earlier this week, Hough informed more than 300 county library and service center employees that they could choose to be reassigned. The employees were deemed nonessential and no longer have work to do since their workplaces closed three weeks ago. One reassignment option could be to work at the hotels, but there aren’t any current openings.
If an employee doesn’t want any assignment, they can use their paid time off or unpaid leave, Hough said. If the employee doesn’t have any leave time, they can take up six weeks of leave and pay it back to the county over time.
Officials first asked all the county’s 8,900 employees if they wanted reassignment to the hotels, It would be a temporary assignment and employees would receive training and proper protection equipment, he said.
“We didn’t make this decision lightly,” Hough said.
On Friday AFSCME Local 2822, the union that represents library and service center employees, asked Hough to delay the reassignments until all their payroll and safety issues were addressed.
Local President Ali Fuhrman expressed concern about untrained employees working as social workers among a very complicated population.
Another issue is the fact that there are only about 50 positions at the hotels, many of them part-time, she said.
“At a time when the governor is asking businesses to pay their workers as they do their jobs from home, the county is asking these employees to potentially take the financial burden when it’s already in the budget,” Fuhrman said.
“It’s shameful, and we are being backed into a corner. I think people are fearful they will be blacklisted if they don’t agree to the reassignment.”
The union pushed for the libraries and service center to be closed when county officials didn’t want to do it, Fuhrman said.
“I think the reassignments are retaliation for our union wanting to put the safety of the public and our workers first,” she said.
Hough countered that the county has been very proactive and innovative to keep its services available. But it can’t allow employees to work at home and get paid with taxpayer dollars if they have no work to do, he said.
“The county has significant, unknown challenges that we have deal with every day,” he said. “The multitude of issues is overwhelming. I’m proud of the work done by our organization.”