ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) — Public defenders and support staff in Minnesota voted to authorize a statewide strike Thursday, starting a ten-day countdown for the state’s Board of Public Defense and a chapter of the Teamsters Union to come to an agreement.
Attorneys and administrative staff of Teamsters Local 320 voted 244-40 and 90-35, respectively, to reject the latest offer from the Board. The vote begins a 10-day cooling-off period during which the union and Board will be in mediation. Union members have pointed to across-the-board staffing shortages leading to overwork for low pay as the chief sticking point.
State chief public defender Bill Ward has said that the Board’s last offer, made early in February, offered 10% raises to those not at the top of the pay scale — roughly 85% of the approximately 470 attorneys and 200 support staff in the union. The offer notes that it would put the Board at a deficit of $1.1 million.
The Board was relatively mum on the issue Thursday, issuing a statement agreeing that public defenders are underpaid and understaffed but noting that it is “constrained in its negotiations by the resources provided by the state.”
At a press conference Thursday afternoon, union leaders said that the salary raise was only part of the story.
“The economic offer is insufficient because it does not give the union an opportunity to appropriately address wages in a wage opener in the event that the legislature allocates additional increases to the Board of Public Defense,” Local 320 secretary-treasurer Brian Aldes said.
Minnesota netted a $9.25 billion state budget surplus in 2021, and Aldes said the union wanted to be able to discuss further raises if the Legislature threw more funding to the Board.
While the Board has said it would allow that, Local 320 Communications Director Gus Froemke said, its offer gave the union no legal recourse to raise the issue.
Union members described a vicious cycle of low pay and overwork leading to low retention rates and still heavier workloads in public defenders’ offices around the state. In Hennepin County, home to the state’s biggest city, approximately 100 public defenders are currently handling 12,000 open cases. Kevin Kajer, the Board’s chief administrator, told lawmakers in January that the state public defender rolls have only three-quarters of the attorneys required to keep pace, and 60% of the support staff.
Union leaders also noted that part-time public defenders are often stiffed for their work.
“Half- and three-quarter-time public defenders average 500 hours a year more than they are contracted to perform,” Aldes said. “That means that they are working 500 additional hours, per year, that they are not compensated for.”
Even that pay, they said, is not consistent with other public employees. State public defense attorneys’ entry level salary was $65,800 in 2021, and the maximum was $115,466. Prosecutors, by contrast, netted an average starting salary of $70,352 in 2020 and a maximum $135,607. The state Attorney General’s office starts attorneys at $78,332 with the potential to earn up to $140,153.
This is the first strike vote public defenders have made in Minnesota history. Union member Kyle MacArthur, an investigator based in the southern Minnesota city of Mankato, said they had come to it reluctantly.
“I have no desire to strike. My members have no desire to strike. We want to do our job to the best of our ability. Unfortunately, we can’t do that when we don’t have fair pay and our working conditions don’t allow us to retain our fantastic attorneys and support staff,” he said.
By proferring a final offer, he said, “they played hardball, not us.”
Jill Nitke, an investigator in the state’s 10th Judicial District on its eastern border, said the union was also pushing for the interest of its members’ clients.
“This doesn’t just hurt public defense employees. This hurts defendants,” she said. “When board leadership fails to offer competitive pay, benefits, and flexibility on the job, it directly impacts our ability to retain a highly qualified attorney, and certainly support, staff.”
Union leaders said that judges and court administrators had been notified of the potential for a strike and asked to plan accordingly. Local 320 counsel Kevin Beck said that the union had asked the Minnesota Board of Lawyers' Professional Responsibility for an ethics opinion on a strike.
"They reconfirmed... public defenders' ability to strike under PELRA," Beck said, namechecking the Public Employment Labor Relations Act," but they would not give us a blanket opinion... they said it would be a case-by-case analysis."
It has been a big week for Minnesota’s public employee unions; Minneapolis’ teachers’ union went on strike on Tuesday after failing to reach agreement with the city’s school district on salaries, class sizes and mental health supports for students. School remains out in Minneapolis after two days of striking.
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