Minneapolis, MN – Fed up with crushing caseloads and substandard pay, public defense lawyers and support staff workers employed by the Minnesota Board of Public Defense voted overwhelmingly March 10 to reject a final offer and authorize a strike. The workers are all represented by Teamsters Local 320.
A ten-day cooling off period began March 11 and the parties are required to engage in mediation before a strike can begin. This is the first time in Minnesota history that public defense workers have voted to strike. A strike could begin as early as the week of March 21.
Unresolved issues include pay, limits on the number of hours part-time lawyers can be required to work without additional pay, and the right to work remotely. Pay for public defense workers in Minnesota is as much as 40% less than prosecutors. Part-time lawyers are required to work more than 40 hours per week with no additional compensation. There are no limits on the number of hours full-time lawyers can be required to work. And the Board of Public Defense, the agency that employs the workers, has refused to negotiate on remote work.
Workers in public defense offices worked remotely through much of the pandemic, but client needs required that jail visits and some court appearances continued in person. The workers have proposed contract language to continue remote work, but the Board of Public Defense has refused to discuss it.
Maja Gamble, a public defense investigator says, “For the past two years, we have proven capable of providing the caliber of representation our clients deserve while working remotely. The board’s resistance to permitting a remote work option feels unnecessarily rigid and frankly makes no sense.”
Issues with substandard pay and excessive caseloads for public defense workers have existed for over 20 years. The Board of Public Defense and the state of Minnesota are fully aware that pay for public defense workers is unreasonably low and that caseloads far exceed maximums set by the American Bar Association. Despite that knowledge there has never been funding adequate to provide pay parity with prosecutors or get caseloads under control.
The workers have been offered a cost-of-living increase in the low single digits despite inflation approaching 8%.
Veronica Surges, who has been employed as a public defense lawyer for ten years in several different locations in Minnesota, said, “The offer is insulting. When compared with inflation, I am taking a pay cut to continue doing my job.”
Surges is tired of getting paid lower than prosecutors with far less experience and having a caseload that prevents her from having a life outside work. “I work many nights and almost every weekend. It is the same for many of my colleagues throughout the state. In some offices, it seems people are quitting almost every week. Things are at a breaking point. This cannot continue. Because we cannot provide effective assistance of counsel, it’s our clients who end up suffering too.”
Public defenders represent between 85 and 90% of all persons who are criminal defendants in Minnesota. Virtually all of those persons are poor, and many are oppressed nationalities. According to Surges, “This battle has provided an opportunity for the state of Minnesota to step up and show they care about justice. Let’s see if they can find the will to do so.”