Layoffs Due to Virus Lead to Dissension at Duluth City Hall

Duluth faces a potential $38 million budget shortfall Mayor Emily Larson calls “absolutely catastrophic” in the wake of declining tax revenue  projections due to the economic impact of the coronavirus. The dire predicament forced the city to lay off some 100 employees, implement a hiring freeze, as well as shutter a golf course and other city facilities.

City officials laid it on the line at a recent virtual city council meeting covered by the Duluth News Tribune.

Noah Schuchman, Duluth’s chief administrative officer, explained that in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, the city had asked staff to work from home to the best of their abilities. But some jobs simply were impossible to perform in that setting. He said that initially the city continued to pay idled staff nevertheless.

“And at a certain point, after now six weeks, that is not something that financially we are able to continue to do — to pay people who are not able to do their normal job functions,” he said.

But cracks are starting to show in the ranks of some city employees laid off in the so-called life safety department. By definition they cannot work from home like many other city employees because their job often requires personal interactions with the public.

Yet two life safety department inspectors made the case to city councilors that their layoffs due to the coronavirus constitute a different sort of threat to public safety.

Greg Smith, who has been employed by the city for more than eight years, is one of four inspectors who lost their jobs.

During a public comment period before the Duluth City Council on Monday, Smith tried to put those cuts in perspective, saying: “This constitutes almost our entire division and only leaves one lead inspector working. We understand that this is a challenging time financially for the city and that the administration has a hard job ahead of it. However, we also recognize the negative impact these layoffs will have on city services by decreasing the safety and maintenance of rental units, resulting in an impact on the quality of life for thousands of tenants throughout our city.”

Internal politics appeared to overshadow concerns over potential health issues posed by the coronavirus to both the inspectors and the public.

City Councilor Derek Medved asked: “Why does it seem that life safety did take a huge impact or a decrease in personnel and other departments did not see that? I mean that was pretty much wiping out one whole department.”

Medved questioned whether the 50-plus layoffs of city staff were occurring in a fair and equitable fashion.

“To date, we haven’t seen any administrative positions laid off but more of the boots on the ground, as I explain it. So, to me that’s a little concerning,” he said. “So I’d like to ask: Why did life safety take such an impact?”

Of course, hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans in the private sector have also joined the record ranks of the unemployed during Gov. Tim Walz’s shutdown. But they do not have the luxury of a city council member advocating for their reinstatement to the jobs they also consider essential to their families’ well-being.