Minnesota public defenders to share results of strike authorization vote

After months of contract negotiations, public defense workers in Minnesota will announce whether or not they will go a strike Thursday afternoon.

The Minnesota Board of Public Defense provided a "last, best final" offer last month, which Teamsters Local 320, the public defense union, said did not meet the needs of the union. Ballots to accept or reject the final offer were sent to Teamsters Local 320 members on Feb. 22.

The votes are currently being counted, and the results will be shared around 2:30 p.m. Thursday. If members vote "no" and reject the offer as the bargaining team recommended, it will activate a 10-day mediation period before the public defenders go on strike.

Union members are asking for the board to address the "long standing and rampant issues" that are preventing them from meeting ethical standards.

"I think that we're at a breaking point because staff are literally leaving in troves now, and these are people who love their jobs," legal office assistant Andrea Anderson said the "Vote No" video. "They get so much joy and satisfaction from their jobs. They feel like their making a difference, and now they can't do that and be OK themselves – financially, spiritually, emotionally, physically."

The ongoing issues include pay scale disparities, high caseloads, and workplace safety. Public defenders have said that they are overwhelmed by the case load demands, and it prevents them from dedicating the time they need to work their clients' cases.

The union says public defenders in Minnesota have never gone on strike before. They hope a contract can be agreed upon during the 10-day mediation period (if the vote results reject the proposal) before a strike happens.

Employees in the Minnesota Board of Public Defense represent 80-90% of criminal defendants in the state. The union says the board's failure to negotiate a fair contact is "systemically harming" the state's clients, the majority of whom are from Minnesota's communities of color.

Public defenders: ‘We’re overworked and underpaid'

In January, public defenders pled with lawmakers to provide more funding as more of them leave the demanding workforce. 

The Board of Public Defense was seeking $50 million through a supplemental budget request to state lawmakers, of which $29 million would fund 250 new hires, while $21 million would boost salaries.

"I, like many of my colleagues, am drowning. The case loads are brutal and so is the workload," Brenda Lightbody, an assistant public defender in Dakota County, told the House Judiciary Committee in January. "Unhappy and stressed and demoralized public defenders cannot properly serve our clients. And be clear -- we want to serve our clients."

Public defenders handle more than 150,000 cases a year for low-income people who are accused of crimes and cannot afford a private attorney.

The workforce has continued to deal with a staffing shortage. In 2021, 56 public defenders resigned, the highest quit rate in at least several years. Few people are applying for the open positions. The number of applications plummeted during the last months of 2021 compared with previous years, according to Board of Public Defense data.

MORE: Minnesota public defenders 'drowning' in cases, seek more funding