DDS employees celebrate caseload, work-life balance victory

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Employees working for the Department of Employment and Economic Development’s (DEED) Disability Determination Services (DDS) division are celebrating a recent workload victory thanks to the determination of MAPE members who were tired of mounting caseloads and unrealistic expectations for work assigned during time off.

DDS examiners are responsible for vetting every application for disability through Social Security. Depending on their level of classification, examiners are assigned 12-15 new cases a week. On July 1, DDS is implementing a new policy, created after years of advocating by MAPE members for such change, that will limit DDS examiners’ caseloads to 100 and prohibit the agency from assigning additional cases while employees are sick or on vacation.

Until now, the agency would allow caseloads to reach 200 or more, and continue assigning disability applications to staff who were out of the office, making it difficult for DDS employees to catch up on their cases and limiting how thorough each claim could be processed.

“Prior to this victory, we’d receive new cases assigned to us if sick or on vacation. The expectation was that your eight-person work unit would back you up, creating more work for our peers,” said Kelsey Goneau-Martinson, DDS disability specialist and member of the DEED meet and confer committee. “Until now, it’s been ‘take one day off and fall behind by three.’”

Fellow DDS specialist and Meet and Confer Co-chair Katherine Austin said the new policy will support a healthier work-life balance for the examiners’ unit, something that has plagued DDS staff for years.

“Workload at DDS and ability to take time off without feeling afraid of falling behind has been an issue for more than a decade, back to when I started in 2010, and we’re finally making progress on it now,” Austin said. “Examiners at DDS have been asking for some sort of a caseload cap for a moment of relief to catch up for decades.”

Goneau-Martinson says pausing intake will give DDS staff more tools to manage workloads and support employees when they need time off.

“One of our coworkers was scared to go to the dentist because she didn’t want to take an hour off work because her work would continue to pile up,” she said. “Previous to this victory, there’d be no end in sight.”

Two years ago the Meet and Confer team started a petition, gauging interest on the idea of case caps and intake pauses. Those conversations came to a head when a new director, a new case management system and a worldwide pandemic all hit the agency around the same time. 

“Meeting with our new director bi-weekly to push issues and collaborate with him on solutions that would impact all employees gave us the leverage we needed to make changes,” Austin said. “Examiners just want to do a good job, but high caseloads meant we weren't able to serve our clients as thoroughly or thoughtfully as we could.”

When the new policy was announced internally a few weeks ago, colleagues messaged Austin and Goneau-Martinson with heartfelt thanks, even though the union was not credited with inspiring the policy change.

“We know, and our director knows, this isn’t just Kelsey and I talking, it’s supported by our peers and we’re speaking as a unified voice,” Austin said. “Now we have tools to better do our jobs and manage our workloads so we can have a chance to exceed expectations.”

Those tools come with great relief for these Meet and Confer co-chairs and their DDS peers.

“I did a little happy dance, I was so thrilled,” Goneau-Martinson said about her reaction to the new policy being announced. “All of our hard work paid off. I’m hoping this will spur a few more people to get more active in MAPE and show that the union can support staff – sometimes it just takes time.”

Austin said ultimately the new policy is best for staff and the vulnerable population DDS serves.

“This is better for employees and better for the Minnesotans we serve,” she said. “We can do our jobs better now, which provides better services to those who need them most.”