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Local View: City of Duluth mistreating essential workers during pandemic

From the column: "We are tired of being looked down upon and treated with indifference."

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Monte Wolverton / Cagle Cartoons

Mayor Emily Larson proclaimed Friday, Nov. 19 Essential Worker Day in the city of Duluth. What appeared to be a genuine tip of the hat to the people who do the work was more of an ironic poke, however, considering the way the city has treated its essential employees.

Throughout the pandemic, the city of Duluth has turned its back on its workers. The sacrifice consistently has been on the shoulders of those who did not have the option to work from home and who faced exposure to the coronavirus every day they came to work.

Bargaining units across the city signed contracts that included 0% wage increases for 2021. Some units agreed to unpaid furlough days. At the time, the financial picture was uncertain. In good faith, city workers agreed to a lack of wage increases with every reason to believe they would be made whole as things improved.

As it turns out, the city’s financial picture has been doing much better than anticipated. At the end of 2020, the city’s net position improved by more than $73 million, and over 18% of the general fund was unassigned, far surpassing the statewide goal of 10%. Keep in mind this was before the city was made aware it would be receiving $60 million in American Rescue Act funds.

One of the cleanest means to spend that money is through premium pay for essential employees who faced the pandemic head on. The city had no interest in taking this route, though, and approved other spending, including $12 million for air conditioning in City Hall.

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During the pandemic, city employees were faced with family members who were home and in quarantine. Federally mandated emergency paid sick leave was made available to the city, but it decided to carve out police and fire employees. It was another example of blatant disregard for those serving the citizens.

In the spirit of kicking them when they’re down, the city recently decided to attempt negotiations to pass off a health care plan that could result in an over 11% reduction in pay. Attempts have been made to alter retiree health care, which is an earned benefit promised to retirees, many of whom are on fixed incomes. All of this is being done under the guise of a “financial cliff” which, based on evidence, simply does not seem to exist.

Many city workers were not impressed by the mayor’s proclamation. We are tired of being looked down upon and treated with indifference. We join with essential workers across the city in saying enough is enough. Save your well wishes and start treating with respect those who come to work every day to serve the citizens of Duluth.

Dave Werner of Esko is a career firefighter and treasurer of Duluth Firefighters Local 101. He wrote this for the News Tribune.

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Dave Werner

Related Topics: EMILY LARSON
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