The American Red Cross and the state Department of Corrections have a fundamental disagreement over the definition of “disaster.”
And it all comes down to one person: Shelley Koski.
Koski is one of the few certified American Red Cross Disaster Mental Health volunteers in the country. She’s also a clinical therapist with the Corrections Department at Moose Lake.
A 1994 state law allows state employees to take up to 15 days a year with pay to provide Red Cross disaster services. Koski has provided her services after hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, among other natural disasters.
She’s now involved in counseling returning veterans and their families through Red Cross workshops. When she sought approval from her bosses to use a portion of the 15-day allotment for a workshop, the department said no; counseling veterans does not qualify as disaster relief.
Her union has gone to bat for her, pointing out that she is the only state employee that this applies to. It has agreed to stipulate that allowing her would set no precedent.
Corrections has not budged.
In a recent session on depression in Peoria, Ill., she talked a homeless vet out of committing suicide. “If you can save one life, to me that qualifies as disaster relief,” she said.
Koski had never been denied approval for previous requests to assist the Red Cross during more conventional disasters. She assumed that her request to work with the military and veterans would sail through, especially with statistics showing that nearly two dozen veterans and service members a day commit suicide nationwide.
The debate continued as the Corrections Department celebrated being named a Beyond the Yellow Ribbon Company, which recognizes organizations for their support of vets.
“I did assume, I thought 22 to 23 veterans committing suicide a day is a disaster,” she said. “I can’t imagine somebody not supporting this, and then when they decided to become a yellow ribbon company, the hypocrisy was very, very difficult.”
A corrections spokeswoman said that she is prohibited from speaking about an individual state employee but that the department fully supports employees who use leave opportunities to help people in need.
But the spokeswoman, Sarah Latuseck, said that providing training to others does not qualify under state law for use of the leave time.
“The Department of Corrections follows the law,” she said in a statement. “We are proud we were recently named a Yellow Ribbon Company for our support of our veteran employees, and fully support both our veterans and those state employees who give of their time and talent to support our military service members and Minnesota veterans.”
Koski has been a certified disaster volunteer with the Red Cross for more than a decade and has been promoted to disaster mental health manager. She is designated to give specialized workshops to military members and their families, one of fewer than 100 mental-health professionals in the U.S. with that distinction.
The Red Cross says that a lot of specialized training is required for the “Coping with Deployment and Reconnection Workshops” and that only a few professionals have been trained to conduct them. The regional chief executive of the Red Cross made the case in a letter requesting that Koski be given time off.
“While not an emergency in the sense of a disaster, which is a time limited event, these workshops deal with a very vulnerable discrete section of the population which is subject to high stress on a daily basis and has a high rate of suicide,” he wrote.
Laws change, author says
The state law permitting employees leave to volunteer for the Red Cross was enacted in 1994 as part of a far-reaching flood-relief bill. The House author of the Red Cross provision, former state Rep. Charlie Weaver, said the definition of disaster should be applied broadly, as long as it doesn’t open flood gates.
“Whenever you pass a law, it’s got to be interpreted over time,” Weaver said. “What if there’s a terrorist attack? Would we want state employees with specialized training to be available? Hell, yes. What we called a disaster in ’94 is different from 20 years later.”
Koski’s union, the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees, has offered to draw up a guarantee that the provision would apply only to a person with Koski’s specific skills, a common procedure in labor relations.
“Not one person can give me one reason not to do this,” said Richard Kolodziejski, MAPE’s public affairs and communications director. “This costs them nothing, zero, not one penny. We’re working with people who are killing themselves.”
Meanwhile, Koski will use her own time to continue her mission, including a December workshop in Minneapolis.
“This is just one way that I felt that I could give back,” she said. “My faith is a very strong part of my life. I believe we are given a set of skills and if we don’t use them we are kind of cheating the gifter.”