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Public defenders get more flexibility after criticism of office mandate

While some functions will still need to be performed in person, the state agency has relaxed its policy that required all employees to report to offices full time amid the ongoing pandemic.

FILE: Alworth Building
The Northeastern Minnesota public defender's office is headquartered on the 14th floor of downtown Duluth's Alworth Building, which is pictured Nov. 17, 2019. The staff was recently ordered to return to the office, over the objections of several employees. Tyler Schank / File / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — The Minnesota Board of Public Defense reversed course this week and said most employees will again be allowed to work remotely as the state weathers another wave of COVID-19 transmission.

The move comes less than two months after the implementation of a return-to-office mandate that was criticized by numerous workers, their union and some state legislators.

The authorization of telework, starting Thursday, Sept. 24, was announced to employees by State Public Defender Bill Ward and Chief Administrator Kevin Kajer.

"As we have talked about since the pandemic began, the situation with the virus is fluid and changes to our work situations might be necessary," they wrote Monday, Sept. 20. "As the outbreak of COVID-19 continues to evolve, our response and work situations must evolve."

Ward and Kajer said they have seen "less than a handful of employees" enter quarantine due to a positive test or exposure since staff was called back in early August, with all known cases occurring outside the office.

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But they wrote that the return of schools, particularly those without mask requirements, "super-spreader events" such as concerts and the state fair, and a still-unvaccinated portion of the population have all helped push the state back to the high transmission rates seen last winter.

Several current and former employees, predominately in Northeastern Minnesota's 6th Judicial District, previously expressed concern and frustration about the office policy, saying they were concerned for their own health and that of vulnerable family members.

Additionally, several public defenders said the policy was limiting their ability to handle their already heavy caseloads, forcing hearings to be postponed and at least a few defendants to end up with arrest warrants, as staff members were prohibited from doing any work if they were unable to report to the office.

Officials had defended the policy, with 6th District Chief Dan Lew saying, "We serve the clients best when we work as a team," and citing a number of safety precautions in the workplace designed to prevent spread.

Teamsters Local 320, which represents nonmanagers across the state, had a meeting planned with Board of Public Defense officials last week, but several representatives said it was scrapped after it was learned a person with COVID-19 had been in the Duluth office.

The possible exposure on Sept. 3 didn't come to light until last week, and the office was temporarily shuttered to allow for cleaning and testing of employees who may have been impacted.

Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, chair of the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee, expressed her "serious concerns" about the lack of a telework option in a Sept. 15 letter to public defense leadership, citing the Duluth office closure.

"I appreciate your office’s continued effort to implement safety protocols, including implementing a mask mandate and requiring that all employees adhere to social distancing guidelines when in common spaces," she wrote. "However, more must and can be done to protect our public defense employees, as the safety of all staff and clients should remain the top priority. I recognize that in-person communication is preferred but it is simply not safe to do so at this time."

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Ward and Kajer stressed in their Monday email to staff that public defenders perform a "critical function of government" and that "the obligation to meet with clients and to appear with clients has not changed." They said chiefs, managing attorneys and office managers would still be expected to physically report, as well as other employees when necessary.

"We understand that given the current court schedules there will be work that must be done in the office, in the field, at detention facilities and at the courthouses," they wrote. "The offices will remain open just as they have been."

Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or tolsen@duluthnews.com.
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