Public defenders, state reach a deal to avert strike

By: - March 19, 2022 1:15 pm

The Minnesota Capitol. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

The public defenders’ negotiating committee and the state’s Board of Public Defense reached a tentative agreement on a two-year contract early Saturday, averting a strike that threatened to jam up the already backlogged court system. 

Representatives for public defender support staff — including paralegals and investigators — also reached a tentative agreement in the wee hours of Saturday morning. 

The agreement, which must go to the state’s public defenders for ratification, provides slightly higher annual increases than the Board of Public Defense offered in its “last, best and final” offer but fails to bring public defender salaries in line with prosecutors, who can make tens of thousands of dollars more a year. 

“Our issue was parity (with prosecutors) … We’re not there, but (the Board of Public Defense) doesn’t have the dough for that,” said Bob Kolstad, a public defender in Hennepin County and a member of the negotiating committee for Teamsters Local 320. 

Kolstad said they were able to secure an important stipulation that the Board of Public Defense will come back to the bargaining table to negotiate salary increases should the Legislature give them more money this session. 

He also said the organizing they did to get public defenders to authorize a strike for the first time in state history sets them up well for future negotiations, which will happen in just over a year because the new contract is retroactive to July 2021. 

“I think that the members now recognize the power of the strike threat,” Kolstad said. “Everybody said that public defenders would never vote to strike. And we got an overwhelming vote on that.” 

Public defenders are pushing for the state to tap into its $9.3 billion projected budget surplus to shore up an underfunded system that’s upwards of 150 attorneys short of meeting national standards for caseloads. The high caseloads — along with pay that’s not competitive with county prosecutors and private sector attorneys — has led to high turnover. Public defenders say that results in substandard representation for their clients. 

State Public Defender Bill Ward told state lawmakers in January that the Legislature had never fully funded the Board of Public Defense, while also acknowledging he had never asked for full funding. 

He told state lawmakers the board’s final offer would result in a $3.3 million deficit over the two-year contract. That offer included 2-2.5% annual cost of living increases, along with longevity increases, leading to about $1,500 to $2,500 raises each year for most attorneys. 

The tentative agreement includes 3.5% increases in the first year and 3% increases in the second year, along with so-called step increases earned after certain number of years of service. 

Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, authored a bill that would appropriate to the Board an additional $50 million in 2023, about a 50% increase to the Board’s $106 million budget. 

Should state lawmakers approve additional funding increases for public defenders, the union and the board would enter mediation to negotiate salary increases, although public defenders would not be allowed to strike if they fail to reach an agreement. 

Another issue that was set aside was a cap on how many hours part-time public defenders can work. 

Part-time public defenders work an average of 500 unpaid hours a year, according to the union, with many saddled with full-time caseloads for part-time pay and fewer benefits. The board and union agreed to have future mediation sessions on resolving the high caseloads of part-time public defenders. 

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Most recently he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.