Minnesota public defenders reached a tentative contract agreement late Friday night, union officials said Saturday, averting a walkout that threatened to bring much of the state court system to a standstill.

The deal came during the first day of mediation following last week's strike authorization vote. The tentative agreement between employees of the Minnesota Board of Public Defense and the board's leadership includes a 3.5% retroactive pay increase from July 1 when the previous contract expired, and a 3% bump after July 1 of this year.

Employees have raised concerns about staffing shortages and high caseloads, conditions they said hurt their clients, who are mostly indigent and people of color.

"This is just putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound," said Gus Froemke, communications director for Teamsters Local 320, the union that represents public defenders. "The public defenders system is still chronically underfunded and understaffed, and the Legislature must act."

Board leadership agreed. "Even with these salary increases, the board continues to share the belief that public defenders statewide are underpaid, and that we are understaffed," it said in a statement.

The board will hire additional support staff over the comings months to assist attorneys, it said.

Under the tentative agreement, employees not at the top of the pay scale would advance one step each year. And part-time public defenders, who represent about a third of the 450 public defense attorneys in the state's system, would receive money to cover their overhead costs, Froemke said.

But because of the staff shortages and high caseloads, the part timers, whose contracts stipulate they work 1,350 hours a year, often work 500 to 2,000 extra hours without pay, he said. The agreement does not include funding to cover those hours.

The state's public defense attorneys' salaries for years have fallen short of similar public attorneys. In 2021, their entry-level salary was $65,800, with a maximum of $115,466.

In 2020, salaries for county prosecutors in Minnesota ranged from $70,352 to $135,607, and salaries in the state Attorney General's Office are higher yet at $78,332 to $140,153.

"Our public defenders are going against prosecutors that are better paid than they are," Froemke said, creating an incentive for public defenders to switch to jobs as prosecuting attorneys.

The board's leadership said it is constrained by limited state funding for the public defense system.

In Friday's agreement, both parties agreed to pursue a supplemental budget allocation from the Legislature this year, and to reopen salary negotiations if the extra money is approved.

Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, who chairs the Minnesota House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee, introduced a bill earlier this year to increase funding for the public defense system by $50 million, the union said.

Staff writer Rochelle Olson contributed to this report.

Correction: Previous versions of this story misstated the number of work hours in the contracts of part-time public defenders.