Minneapolis Public Works employees overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike Wednesday night in hopes of a boost in pay and safety protocols following years of frontline work through the pandemic, civil unrest and the homelessness crisis.

The vast majority of the 400 Minneapolis employees represented by Laborers' International Union of North America (LIUNA) Local 363 — 99% — voted in support of the strike.

Employees are seeking wage increases on par with the cost of living, pay parity with workers in nearby cities, bolstered health and safety protocols and "respect and dignity," said AJ Lange, business manager of LIUNA Local 363.

Workers regularly encounter serious health and safety hazards on the job, without adequate employee protections, Lange said.

"We're routinely exposed to hazardous infectious agents. … and when assigned to encampment cleanups, workers have been stuck with needles and urine thrown in their face and held up at gunpoint," Lange said.

Workers in other Minnesota cites earn between $6 and $10 more per hour than Minneapolis employees doing the same work, said Liz Xiong, communications director and political coordinator at LIUNA Minnesota and North Dakota.

"If you can cross the highway, do the same job and make a lot more money, then why would you not? That is adding to strain on the current limited workforce that they do have," Xiong said.

While competition to maintain workers is high across industries and localities and at Public Works — where employees maintain water treatment, sewage, stormwater, trash, recycling, lighting, roads, and bridges — fewer people on schedules increases the strain on other workers, which directly affects city services.

The city of Minneapolis recognizes and appreciates the hard work staff represented by LIUNA Local 363 conduct on behalf of residents, a city spokesperson said in a statement after the vote.

"We continue to bargain in good faith and work toward a fair and equitable contract for these employees. While we are taking necessary precautions and developing contingency plans to minimize disruptions in the event of a strike, our primary focus remains reaching a swift and amicable resolution that avoids such an outcome," the statement said.

The city has not received formal notice from LIUNA Local 363.

Sanitation workers like David McKnight spend their days cleaning up trash from rental evictions or piles of trash after the city closes a homeless encampment. They often face hostility from people who have nowhere to go and they are not trained in de-esclation, he said.

"A lot of times it's unsanitary stuff and unhealthy stuff," McKnight said. "We get stuck with hypodermic needles because you can't see them when you go to pick something up."

It is disheartening for McKnight, as a current employee and for the future of the industry, to see wages not increase, when workers can make more in other cities or across the private sector, he said.

"It takes a toll on your mental health, on your physical health, and then it affects your family," McKnight said of long hours.