DDS Meet and Confer Committee wins overtime victory

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With assistance from a former colleague and a reenergized Meet and Confer Committee, MAPE members in the Disability Determination Services (DDS) department won a victory they’ve spent years fighting for: expanding overtime eligibility. Nearly 80 disability examiners and specialists, who implement the Social Security disability program, will be affected.

“This is the first time overtime was ever offered to all examiners. This happened because we have been meeting and negotiating with our director – this is the power of a union,”  DDS Meet and Confer Committee Co-Chair Kelsey Goneau-Martinson said.

Social Security disability examiners at DDS must work with medical professionals, learn about complicated medical conditions, and manage active caseloads while keeping abreast of state and federal statutes. Members have continually spoken about the challenges of managing the ever-increasing caseloads. Employees are assigned 12-15 often complex cases each week, even when they are ill or on vacation.

“You come back from vacation, you’re never able to get your caseload back to where it was before you went on vacation,” DDS Meet and Confer Committee Co-Chair Katherine Austin said. “There’s a cumulative effect the longer you work here.”

“It’s an overwhelming caseload. The workload is not designed to let people breathe. Every client is different. We read through their medical records and sometimes there can be thousands of pages of medical records to review,” Goneau-Martinson added.

Nearly a year ago, Goneau-Martinson and Austin reached out to MAPE members, including those who no longer worked at DDS for help with organizing and strategizing about issues and how to get more DDS employees involved with the Meet and Confer Committee. 

One of the former DDS employees they contacted for advice was Local 501’s Andrea (Andi) Morris, a MNIT technology specialist with the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). Morris now serves as chair of MNIT’s Meet and Confer Committee.

“I got involved because I know how overwhelming the workload at DDS can be. The idea of getting cases assigned to you when you’re out, even on medical leave, is just crazy. When I was there, I underwent three different surgeries and I was getting cases assigned while I was out for recovery and it seemed so ridiculous,” Morris said.

“DDS employees are serving Minnesotans at their most vulnerable, and if we can find ways for those examiners to be less stressed, that will allow them to be more efficient when processing claims,” Morris added.

Research and contact with other state disability services revealed that many states give their examiners four weeks where they are not assigned new cases whereas Minnesota has only two weeks of no new “intakes.” Some states like Texas do not assign new cases to employees when they are out of the office. No new intakes means no new claims, but the medical records for existing cases continue to come in. 

For the past three months, COVID-19 shutdowns have pushed back certain medical tests needed by some people applying for Social Security disability. Now that more medical appointments are opening up, DDS examiners must also schedule these appointments in addition to processing new and existing cases. Each call takes at least 15 minutes because there is a lengthy script and many clients are anxious with numerous questions.

The DDS Meet and Confer co-chairs were able to negotiate with DDS Director Frank Gilbertson for five hours of overtime for one week to schedule medical appointments that had been on hold for current clients now that COVID-19 restrictions have lessened.

“The push for overtime is not about the extra money, it’s about the extra time to get things done. It lessens the stress a bit,” Austin added. “Our director told us the OT was going well and he was thinking about expanding it to focus on other issues in the future.”

“It is just amazing that we were able to develop enough strength within DDS to get this overtime, which is a win for employees at DDS as well as applicants. Part of that was the involvement of the Meet and Confer team and Director Gilbertson being willing to work with the union. He encouraged staff to go to Meet and Confer meetings. If more agencies could have people like Frank working with employees, we would have fewer issues,” Morris said.

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